Causes of Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's ear is an outer ear infection characterized by ear pain, ear drainage, hearing loss, and itchiness of the outer ear canal. Swimmer's ear is aptly named because it is somewhat common in swimmers. Swimming in contaminated water is a major cause of swimmer's ear.

There are a few germs that commonly cause swimmer's ear including pseudomonas and, less often, various fungi. Even though you can contract swimmer's ear from community pools, since most community pools and hot tubs take precautions to keep the water clean (like adding chlorine), you are more likely to get swimmer's ear from swimming in a lake, the ocean, or another contaminated water source.

That said, however, the real bottom line is that getting any water in the ear poses a risk for swimmer's ear, and the longer you have water in your ears the more likely you are to end up with swimmer's ear. You can even get swimmer's ear from taking a bath.

Young girl with earache
Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Reduce Your Risk

There is a higher risk of developing swimmer's ear if you have experienced trauma to the ears. Broken skin makes it very easy for bacteria to get in, take hold, grow and multiply. For this reason, you should avoid:

  • scratching your ears
  • using a Q-tip or other object to remove ear wax (better yet, unless you have a blockage it's best to leave earwax alone)
  • placing any foreign object in the ear

Of course, there are many accidents that could result in damage to the outer ear canal. If this happens (if your skin integrity is impaired at all), you should be taking precautions to prevent swimmer's ear.

Some medical conditions can predispose a person to chronic swimmer's ear. These include:

  • allergies
  • conditions that cause damage to the skin, including eczema and psoriasis

The good news is that swimmer's ear is very treatable with the assistance of a doctor.

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By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.