How to handle swimmer’s ear this summer

If left untreated, swimmer’s ear can cause a host of other problems.

Many children and swimmers are often plagued by swimmer’s ear. Kyle Johnson, MD, an ear, nose and throat physician at Sanford Seventh & Broadway Clinic in Bismarck, North Dakota talks about the disease, including symptoms, treatment and prevention.

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear is a painful swelling, irritation or infection of the outer ear canal, which is the tube that goes from the opening of the ear to the eardrum. It is not a contagious infection.

Who is most likely to develop swimmer’s ear?

If water stays in the ear canal for any extended period of time, germs can thrive. As a result, it often develops in children and swimmers of all ages. Other potential causes of swimmer’s ear include headphones or hearing aids, swimming caps, eczema, a cut in the skin of the canal, contact with germs via a hot tub or unclean pool water, and cleaning or scratching at the ear canal.

What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear?

The symptoms of swimmer’s ear may look like other health problems. Symptoms can vary by person and the severity of the infection. Typical symptoms are:

  • A full or plugged-up feeling in the ear
  • Fever
  • Itchiness in the ear
  • Muffled hearing or hearing loss
  • Pain (often increasing when touching the earlobe)
  • Pus draining from the ear
  • Redness of the outer ear
  • Swelling of the ear canal

How is swimmer’s ear treated?

With proper treatment, swimmer’s ear can clear up in seven to 10 days. Treatment usually involves multiple types of ear drops and pain medication. Ear drops can be used to kill bacteria (antibiotic) and reduce swelling (corticosteroid).

If left untreated, swimmer’s ear can cause a host of other problems such as hearing loss, bone or cartilage damage, chronic ear infections or the spreading of the infection to nearby tissue.

What can I do to prevent swimmer’s ear?

There are simple habits that can guard against swimmer’s ear. The main goal should be to keep ears as dry as possible. It can help to wear ear plugs when swimming or showering.

It’s also important to avoid trying to clear-out the ear canal with fingers, tweezers, cotton swabs or any other objects. The ear canal generally does not need to be cleaned. During regular bathing, enough water enters the ear canal to loosen any wax that might accumulate. The skin in the ear grows outward in a spiral pattern, making it easier for wax to get naturally sloughed off.

Safer ways to dry the ears after swimming or showering include:

  • Tilting the head to each side, facing each ear downward, and pulling the earlobe in different directions to help drain water.
  • Using a hairdryer (on the lowest or coolest setting) to gently dry the ears. Hold the dryer at least 12 inches from the ear and wave it slowly back and forth.
  • Asking your health care provider for drops that can help promote dryness.

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