No water here! Avoiding swimmers' ear

By Jessica Pickens on July 8, 2016

Boy happily swimming underwater

You jump into the swimming pool, plunging to the bottom. You feel the relief of the cool water on a hot summer’s day. You spend most of your afternoon splashing, racing, and diving to the bottom and back up again.

But at the end of the day, when you push back to the surface and pop your head out of the water, you feel discomfort in one of your ears. Swimmer’s ear.

How did this happen?

Swimmer’s ear is an infection in your ear that is caused by bacteria that is commonly found in water. Ear wax and the slope of your ear canal are natural defenses to clean and prevent swimmer’s ear, but sometimes they can get overwhelmed. If excess moisture remains in your ear, swimmer’s ear can develop.

How can I prevent swimmer’s ear?

  1. Be careful when cleaning your ears. Most doctors advise against using cotton swabs unless you're using it to clean the outside of the ear. Instead, wipe the outer ear with a clean washcloth. Do not dig into the ear canal, and never use a pointed object. Scratching the skin of the ear canal can let germs get in under the skin and cause infection.
  2. Avoid earplugs, if possible. These can irritate the ear canal.
  3. After swimming, tilt and shake your head to drain water from your ears.
  4. Avoid swimming in dirty water. If you swim in a lake or stream, rinse your ears out afterward with clean water or the solution mentioned above.
  5. If you wear a hearing aid, take it out as often as possible to give your ear a chance to dry out; a hearing aid can push wax deeper into the ear canal.

Swimmer’s ear can be mild or serious, depending on the symptoms:

Mild signs and symptoms:

  • Itching in your ear canal
  • Slight redness inside your ear
  • Mild discomfort that's made worse by pulling on your outer ear (pinna, or auricle) or pushing on the little "bump" (tragus) in front of your ear
  • Some drainage of clear, odorless fluid

Moderate progression:

  • More intense itching
  • Increasing pain
  • More extensive redness in your ear
  • Excessive fluid drainage
  • Discharge of pus
  • Feeling of fullness inside your ear and partial blockage of your ear canal by swelling, fluid and debris
  • Decreased or muffled hearing

Advanced progression:

  • Severe pain that may radiate to your face, neck or side of your head
  • Complete blockage of your ear canal
  • Redness or swelling of your outer ear
  • Swelling in the lymph nodes in your neck
  • Fever

Regardless of how mild the symptoms may be, you should see a doctor. Don’t have a primary care physician? Visit MedicalGroupOftheCarolinas.com to make an appointment or call one of our immediate care centers.


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