What Every Person Should Know
Swimmer's ear, also called acute otitis externa, is an infection of the skin of the outer ear canal, which extends from the tympanic membrane (ear drum) to the auricle (outer ear).
It can be brought on from swimming in water that stays in the ear canal after swimming, creating a moist warm environment which can encourage an overgrowth of bacteria which usually live in small numbers on the ear canal skin.
Some risk factors for swimmer's ear include small ear canals, which is why children get so many cases of this, and bacteria in fresh water. You may hear on local news and weather reports in the hot summer weather that the bacteria counts at local beaches are up. This increase in bacteria is another risk factor.
Putting fingers, cotton swabs or other objects into the ear to scratch the ear canal skin or remove cerumen (ear wax) is another risk factor for swimmer's ear because these manipulations of the delicate ear canal skin can cause scratches which break the skin's barrier against bacterial infections.
How do you know if you have swimmer's ear? If the ear begins to get painful and itchy, and if moving the outer ear, or pressing on the tragus (the cartilage tab just in front of the ear canal ) causes pain, it is possible you have swimmer's ear.
If you are in good general health and the discomfort is mild you can try half strength distilled vinegar drops 2-3 times per day, and otherwise keep the ears dry.
If the pain is significant, it is best to see your ENT physician, as he or she can examine your ear, suction out debris or drainage, and if necessary, place a sterile sponge in the ear to allow for topical antibiotic drop treatments for the ear canal skin.
The typical length of symptoms once treatment has begun is 3-4 days, and most treatment courses of antibiotic drops are 7-10 days. It is best not to swim for the days of treatment, but if the pain is gone, it is ok to swim with ear plugs in place, but continue the drops for the length of the treatment prescribed. We always recommend a recheck after the course of antibiotic drops, so we can be sure the infection is completely cleared.
How can swimmer's ear be prevented?
Getting excess water out of the ears after swimming, drying the ears with a towel, "wiggling" the outer ear to aid excess water drainage, and even using a blow drier briefly outside the ear canals can help dry excessive moisture .
Some people who have had repeated swimmer's ears find using a swimmers ear drop after swimming also helps to prevent recurrent infections.
There are commercial preparations available, or these can be made at home with half rubbing alcohol and half distilled vinegar, dropped into the ear canal after swimming and drying the ear. We usually recommend four or five drops in each ear, then pumping the tragus (the cartilage tab in front of the ear canal) 4-5 times to get the drops further into the ear canal. The alcohol helps to dry the ear canal skin, and the vinegar acidifies the skin of the ear canal which helps prevent bacterial overgrowth.
The physicians at West Suburban Ear Nose and Throat Center are available to help you with swimmer's ear problems as well as any other ENT concerns. Please call us if you need an appointment at (630) 981-0032