Swimmer's Ear 101: Understanding the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Discover the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for swimmer's ear, and learn how to prevent it from spoiling your fun in the water.

Swimmer’s ear is an ear infection of the outer ear. What causes swimmers ear? Usually  too much moisture in the ear canal, which allows a bacterial infection to occur. Keep reading to learn more about what is swimmers ear, as well as how to prevent, diagnose, and treat this ailment.

What is swimmers ear?

Swimmer's ear, also known as otitis externa,  is an infection in the outer ear canal, which runs from your eardrum to the outside of your head. It's often caused by water trapped in your ear, creating a moist environment where bacteria grows. Putting fingers, cotton swabs or other objects in your ears also can lead to swimmer's ear by damaging the thin layer of skin lining your ear canal.

Symptoms of swimmers ear

Swimmer's ear symptoms usually starts out mild, but they can worsen if it’s ignored. The symptoms can range from itching and redness in mild cases to pain and draining fluid with a feeling of fullness and hearing impairment to advanced cases with radiating pain, a blocked ear canal, swollen lymph nodes, and fever. 

Preventing swimmers ear

  • The best way to prevent swimmer’s ear is to keep your ears dry, so after you go swimming use a towel to gently wipe your outer ear, you can even use a blow dryer on low to blow out the water. 
  • Don't swim in lakes or rivers on days when warnings of high bacteria counts are posted.
  • Wear earplugs or a swimming cap while swimming to keep your ears dry.
  • Put cotton balls in your ears while applying products such as hair sprays and hair dyes.
  • If you've recently had an ear infection or ear surgery, talk to your doctor before swimming.
  • Never attempt to scratch an itch or dig out earwax with items such as a cotton swab, paper clip or hairpin. 

Treatment options for swimmers ear

Knowing how to get rid of swimmers ear is important for anyone who spends a lot of time in the water. Usually you can treat swimmer's ear with eardrops. Prompt treatment can help prevent complications and more-serious infections. Catching swimmer’s ear at the early stages of infection is important for a faster recovery. It’s also important to not swim or scuba dive while you have the infection or you will likley make things worse.

How to diagnose swimmers ear

Your doctor will likely diagnose swimmer's ear after an office examination. You probably won't need a lab test at your first visit. Your doctor's initial evaluation will usually include examining your ear canal with an otoscope. Your ear canal might appear red, swollen and scaly. There might be skin flakes or other debris in the ear canal. Your doctor will look at your eardrum (tympanic membrane) to be sure it isn't torn or damaged. If the view of your eardrum is blocked, your doctor will clear your ear canal with a small suction device or an instrument with a tiny loop or scoop on the end.

Home remedies for swimmers ear

If you know you don't have a punctured eardrum, you can use homemade preventive eardrops of 1 part white vinegar to 1 part rubbing alcohol. This solution promotes drying and helps prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi. Before and after swimming, pour 1 teaspoon (about 5 milliliters) of the solution into each ear and let it drain back out. 

OTC medication for swimmers ear

If you have caught your swimmer’s ear infection early and your ear drum is not damaged then there are over-the-counter ear drops that promote drying and are antibacterial / antifungal. Debrox is one of the more common brands of ear drops used for this. Keep in mind that if your swimmer’s ear infection is more advanced you will need to get a more aggressive ear drop prescribed by your doctor. How long does swimmers ear last? Well that depends on how advanced your case is - if you catch it early, it usually clears up faster but more advanced cases can be tenacious.

Shop ScopeAround Otoscopes today!

Essentially, if you are swimming or in moist environments frequently, it is worth while to take some extra time to dry your outer ear, or you risk getting a swimmer’s ear infection. The symptoms of swimmer’s ear start out mild, but they should not be ignored because they can progress to requiring a visit to the doctor. Learn to recognize the symptoms of swimmer’s ear and you can learn to treat it at home if you catch it early enough. Knowing how to treat swimmers ear is important for anyone who spends a lot of time in the water. If you have an at-home digital otoscope like the ones sold by Teslong you can examine your ears for ear wax, swelling, discharge, or ruptured ear drums, which will let you know if you need to seek treatment from a health professional. Teslong makes a complete range of digital otoscope products including free-standing models to USB-connected, Lightning cable-connected, and WiFi-connected devices with an otoscope camera app for your mobile device. 


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