Swimmer's Ear

Spending time in the water is a great summer activity. But once you get out of the water, don't forget to dry your ears·otherwise you could develop swimmer's ear. 

Swimmer's ear or external otitis is an infection of your ear canal.  Your ear canal is the tubular opening that carries sound waves to your eardrum.  Bacteria or fungi present in the water can cause the infection.  Anyone can develop swimmer's ear and swimming in a pool isn't the only way you can get it.  Spending time in any body of water including a lake, ocean or even the shower can cause excessive moisture in your ears, which could lead to an infection.

How do I know I have swimmer's ear?

You may have had other ear infections in the past. Swimmer's ear won't feel anything at all like those. If you have swimmer's ear, your outer ear will hurt to the touch. You may find it difficult to lay your head on a pillow.  Quite often people who develop swimmer's ear will complain of an itching sensation before the pain sets in.  In addition to the itching, you may notice a greenish-yellow discharge from the opening of your ear and may have some difficulty hearing.  You could have a fever too. The symptoms would start to show up within several hours or a day after you've been in the water.

There is no particular time frame for developing swimmer's ear once you get out of the water.  But most people will develop pain within several hours or a day.

Treatment

If you think you have swimmer's ear, see your doctor.  If your infection isn't serious he or she will likely prescribe eardrops containing antibiotics or corticosteroids. Make sure you follow the prescription and take all of the medication, which usually covers a 10 day period.  The eardrops will help reduce swelling and fight the infection. 

If your swimmer's ear is more serious, the doctor may have to clean your ear and insert a cotton wick into your ear canal to provide a wider opening for the eardrops to go through.  You also may have to take oral antibiotics in addition to the eardrops.

How to keep the wet out

The best way to help reduce your risk of developing swimmer's ear is to carefully dry the inside of your ears after swimming, bathing or showering.  Sometimes tilting your head completely to one side to let accumulated water drain out can be helpful.  There are also over-the-counter acid alcohol drops that you can use after drying your ears. Be sure to ask your doctor if these are right for you because people who have damaged eardrums shouldn't use them. Staying out of polluted water will greatly reduce your risk as well.

Feeling better

If you currently have swimmer's ear and the pain hasn't subsided, here are some tips that can help make you feel better:

  • Put a warm cloth or hot water bottle against your ear to help relieve the pain. 
  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers.  If that doesn't work, tell your doctor so he or she can prescribe stronger medication. 
  • Follow your doctor's instructions for using either oral antibiotics or eardrops.  Don't stop taking the medication even if the pain has subsided.  Be sure to finish the prescription. 
  • Avoid re-contaminating your ear by keeping your head out of water (even while showering or shampooing) for several days or weeks.  Use cotton swabs or earplugs coated with petroleum jelly and remove them after bathing or washing your hair.