Published on June 09, 2020

What You Need to Know About Swimmer's Ear

Tiffany Boggs, FNP

Tiffany Boggs, FNP, Holzer Otolaryngology (ENT)

Tiffany Boggs, FNP, Otolaryngology (ENT), Holzer Health System, provides information on how to care for our ears during swim season.

Boggs received her Master of Science in Nursing from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. She is Board Certified by the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. She is currently accepting patients at Holzer Jackson and Athens locations.  

What Is Swimmer's Ear? 

Otitis externa, also known as “swimmer’s ear”, is an infection that involves the outer ear canal. The ear canal is a slender portion of the ear that connects the outer ear and the ear drum. Swimmer’s ear can affect both adults and children and can occur any time throughout the year, although it is more common in the summer months.  

What Causes Swimmer's Ear? 

Swimmer’s ear is an infection that can occur if water stays trapped in the ear canal. The ear canal is the perfect environment for an infection given its moist environment. When water is trapped in the moist environment, germs can grow causing a bacterial infection, and in some cases, fungus. We often see this with swimming because of the various germs that can be found in pools with poor water quality. Swimming is not the only source of infection for swimmer’s ear. You can also get swimmer’s ear from water staying in the ear canal after bathing, showering, or even sweating.  

What are symptoms? 

Symptoms for swimmer’s ear include pain, itchiness inside the ear, swelling of the ear canal and outer ear, redness of the outer ear, drainage from the ear canal, and pain with movement of the earlobe. Other symptoms include a decrease in hearing or feelings of “fullness” to the ear.  

What are treatment options? 

Swimmer’s ear is most often treated with prescription ear drops. These drops can include antibiotics, steroids, and medications to treat inflammation and fungus.  When treated, symptoms will usually improve in 3 days, however, it can take up to 14 days for the infection to completely resolve. 

Please note that middle ear infections, which are common in children, are different from swimmer’s ear and as a result, the treatment is different. 

What Can I do to help treat it? 

If you are currently being treated for swimmer’s ear, be sure to follow your providers order by using your medication as directed. You should keep your ear dry during the time of treatment, meaning you should stay away from water. When showering or bathing, you need to take extra precaution to keep water out of the ear.  

For prevention: Try to keep your ears dry. Dry your ears the best you can after swimming or bathing. This can be done by slowly tilting your head from side to side allowing water to escape, pulling your earlobes while the ear is facing down to promote water to escape, using a towel to dry the ear, and if used with caution, using a hair dryer on the lowest heat setting to dry the ear. 

DO NOT put objects into the ear to try and dry the ear. This includes fingers, cotton-tipped swabs, and ear candles. 

Note: Ear wax acts a natural barrier and helps protect the ear canal from infection by limiting the growth of bacteria. By aggressively cleaning the ears with cotton-tip swabs, this protective barrier is being removed which can increase your chance of getting swimmer’s ear. 

When should I call the doctor for treatment of Swimmer's Ear? 

Consult your doctor if you develop any of the above signs or symptoms. Quick and effective treatment will help improve the success of treatment and prevent treatment delay.

Diagnosis is made by performing a physical examination and reviewing your medical history. An otoscope will be used to evaluate the appearance of the ear canal. If warranted by your provider, samples may be taken of the drainage from your ear to aide in effective treatment. 

If swimmer’s ear is left untreated, if can lead to long-term effects such as chronic infections and permanent damage to the ear.  

Boggs received her Master of Science in Nursing from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. She is Board Certified by the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. She is currently accepting patients at Holzer Jackson and Athens locations. No referral is necessary for Holzer ENT services. Holzer ENT providers are available for your healthcare needs!  Visit www.holzer.org or call 1-855-4-HOLZER for more information.

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