Everything You Need to Know About Swimmer's Ear

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What Is Swimmer's Ear?

Swimmer's ear is an outer ear infection that you get when water, often from a swimming pool, gets trapped inside of your ear. Water from bathing, swimming or boating in a lake or river, or sitting in a hot tub can also cause swimmer's ear. Unlike middle ear infections, swimmer's ear can be seen from the outside of the ear. 

Using cotton swabs or other methods to remove protective wax from the ears can increase your risk of developing swimmer's ear. You also may be more at risk if you have cuts or scratches in your ears where bacteria can enter.

Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear

Symptoms of swimmer's ear may include ears that are red and itchy, flaky skin around or inside the ear, ear pain (especially when the ear is touched), swelling of the ear, or drainage from the ear. In severe cases complications of swimmer's ear may occur and cause a fever, ruptured ear drum or pain around the base of the skull.

Other conditions that might be confused with swimmer's ear include skin allergies, or other skin conditions (like eczema), middle ear infections, or fluid in the ear.

When to See a Doctor

Most cases of swimmer's ear should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible to prevent dangerous complications such as malignant otitis externa. However, there are some instances where it might be okay to try some things at home and wait a day or two. If your symptoms get progressively worse, if your pain cannot be controlled with over-the-counter pain relievers or if you're running a fever you should see a doctor immediately.

​You should not use online home remedies (such as homemade ear drops) if you have had recent ear surgery, (such as the placement of ear tubes or a tympanoplasty) or if you suspect you may have a ruptured ear drum as some of these home remedies could damage your ears and even cause hearing loss.

Treatment of Swimmer's Ear

Most cases of swimmer's ear are treated with antibiotic ear drops, but in some instances systemic (oral) antibiotics may be necessary. 

Ear drops are most effective when they are given properly, this usually requires two people. Ear drops should be at room temperature, if they are too cold it can make you feel dizzy or even nauseous. You should lay down with the affected ear up and a second person should put the prescribed number of drops in your ear. Keep laying down for a few minutes afterward to allow the medication time to work.

Some people have excessive ear wax that must be removed in order for the ear drops to be effective. Your doctor can do this in his or her office. Do not try to remove ear wax yourself because you can push it in farther (or even accidentally rupture your eardrum). It should also be noted that ear candles are not recommended. In fact, they can be dangerous.

Your doctor will choose a treatment for you based on the severity of your symptoms and how much the infection has spread. Any antibiotics should be taken exactly as prescribed until they are all gone unless your doctor specifically tells you otherwise.

Managing the Pain of Swimmer's Ear

Unfortunately swimmer's ear can be a painful condition. One of the ways that swimmer's ear is different from a middle ear infection is that, if you have swimmer's ear, it hurts when you pull or wiggle your ear lobe. It can also be swollen and itchy, making this an all around uncomfortable illness. You can try to manage your ear pain by using a heating pad and over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen to control your pain. If this is not effective you may wish to discuss other options with your doctor.

Prevention

Swimmer's ear is often recurring, meaning once you've had it you may be more likely to get it again. It is also true that the more time you spend in the water the more likely you are to get swimmer's ear. However, the good news is that it is also a very preventable condition.  Here are some tips for preventing swimmer's ear:

  • use earplugs to keep water out of your ears
  • make sure your ears are totally dry after bathing, showering, swimming etc.. you can use a blow dryer on a low/cool setting to dry them
  • if you have not had recent ear surgery or a ruptured ear drum you can put a drop or two of baby oil in your ears daily
  • maintain a healthy amount of ear wax

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