Here's what swimmer's ear is and how to prevent it

By Frank McGeorge, MD - Medical Expert

When people think of an ear infection they're usually talking about a middle ear infection called otitis media. 

That's different than swimmer's ear, which is otitis externa. Swimmer's ear affects the ear canal. It runs from the outer ear to the eardrum. Normally this area is protected by your ear wax. When the protective wax is disrupted or the canal stays damp for too long, the skin can break down and become infected causing swelling and a buildup of debris and drainage in the canal.

Symptoms that suggest you might have swimmer's ear include itchiness in the canal, pain, especially when you tug on your earlobe, gooey drainage from your ear canal, or muffled hearing.  A fever and visible redness can occur as well, but that often only occurs when it's more severe. In those cases you should see a doctor quickly, especially if you also have diabetes.

Because one of the main causes of swimmer's ear is leftover dampness after swimming, many of the preventative measures are aimed at that. Swimming earplugs can be helpful. After you swim, tilting your head and tugging your earlobe can help straighten your ear canal so water drains more easily, cupping your ear and creating some gentle suction can also help. Using a hairdryer on low to dry the canal is also an option.

If you always feel like there's some leftover water in your ear, mix a small amount of vinegar and rubbing alcohol in equal parts. You only need a couple drops, so Costco-sized bottles aren't necessary. After you swim put a couple drops of the mix in each ear. The vinegar slightly acidifies your ear canal supressing bacterial growth, and the alcohol helps the water evaporate more quickly. 

A couple of warnings:

  • Don't use this mix if you have tubes in your ears or a hole in your eardrum.
  • Also, in some people as the alcohol evaporates it can cool your eardrum causing brief dizziness.

If you see a doctor for swimmers ear, we usually precribe antibiotic eardrops or drops with a combination of antibiotics and a steroid. Generally it should improve over a few days, but no swimming in the meantime.

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