Swimmer’s Ear: Causes and Symptoms

If your idea of summer fun is splashing in the pool for hours, then you’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, swimming is the fourth most popular recreational activity in the United States with more than 91 million people over the age of 16 enjoying a refreshing dip each year.

The next time you’re toweling off, be sure to dry out your ears to avoid a condition called swimmer’s ear, which can lead to irritation and discomfort. You can also reduce your risk of swimmer’s ear symptoms by wearing a swim cap, ear plugs or custom-fitted swim molds when you’re in the water.

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear, or otitus externa, is a skin infection of the outer ear canal and can be extremely painful. The outer ear canal goes from the eardrum to the outside of your head. This type of infection is typically caused by water that remains in your ear after swimming or showering, which is the perfect environment for bacteria to grow.

All water has some bacteria in it, particularly nontreated water found in lakes, rivers and oceans. When this water and bacteria fails to drain properly from the outer ear canal, it begins to multiply and cause an infection. This infection causes several swimmer’s ear symptoms ranging from mild to severe. The good news is early intervention with ear drops can help prevent complications and more serious infections.

Swimmer’s ear symptoms

Swimmer’s ear symptoms are typically mild at first but can worsen significantly if left untreated. Symptoms are classified into three groups:

Mild signs and symptoms

  • Itching in the ear canal
  • Mild pain or discomfort that worsens when pushing, pulling or rubbing the ear
  • Slight redness inside the ear
  • Some drainage of clear, odorless fluid

Moderate progression

  • Increased itching in the ear canal
  • Increased pain or discomfort that worsens when pushing, pulling or rubbing the ear
  • More extensive redness in the ear
  • Excessive drainage of fluid
  • Feeling of fullness inside the ear and partial blockage of your ear canal by swelling, fluid and debris
  • Decreased or muffled hearing

Advanced progression

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

If you have any symptoms listed above, contact your doctor or visit Coastal Urgent Care of Thibodaux to avoid worsening symptoms or complications. Go directly to your nearest urgent care or emergency room if you’re experiencing severe pain or fever.

How to avoid swimmer’s ear

Here are the do’s and don’ts of swimmer’s ear prevention:

Do

  • Dry ears with a towel after swimming or showering.
  • Tilt your head to each side to allow excess water to drain.
  • Use earplugs or a swim cap to protect your ears from nontreated water.
  • Use a nonprescription ear drop, like Swim-Ear or isopropyl alcohol, before and after swimming to remove excess water.
  • Try a hairdryer on the lowest setting to dry out ears.
  • Try a preventative treatment of 1-part white vinegar to 1-part isopropyl alcohol before swimming to promote drying and prevent bacteria growth.

Don’t

  • Let trapped water sit in your ears.
  • Use foreign objects to clean your ears, like cotton swabs.
  • Clean or scratch the ear vigorously, as this will cause tiny abrasions that could encourage bacteria growth.
  • Try to remove ear wax because it helps protect the ear canal from infection.

Swimmer’s ear treatment

Always consult your physician before trying any at-home remedies for swimmer’s ear. They will likely prescribe the following to help effectively manage the infection as well as any pain or discomfort:

  • Pain relievers to alleviate the pain
  • Antibiotic ear drops to eliminate the infection
  • Oral antibiotics are typically only used in severe cases where the infection has spread outside of the ear.

If you or a loved one is struggling with the symptoms of an ear infection, visit Coastal Urgent Care of Thibodaux for expert care and treatment. Our skilled physicians can help diagnose the severity of your infection using special instruments that measure the fluid buildup and test the movement of the eardrum. Depending on the severity of the results, they will prescribe the appropriate type and dose of medication to help you get relief fast.

Our center is open for walk-in appointments 7 days a week from 9 a.m. – 8 p.m.