Swimmer's Ear and More

Causes

When water gets into the ear, it may bring in bacterial or fungal particles. Usually the water runs back out, the ear dries out and the bacteria and fungi don’t cause any problems. Sometimes, however, water remains trapped in the ear canal and the skin gets soggy. This can lead to bacteria and fungi growth, which in turn can infect the outer ear.

Symptoms
  • The ear feels blocked and may itch
  • The ear canal becomes swollen, sometimes swelling shut
  • The ear starts draining a runny milky liquid
  • The ear becomes very painful and very tender to touch, especially on the cartilage in front of the ear canal.

If you experience these symptoms or if glands in the neck become swollen, seek medical attention.

Prevention

If your ear feels moist or blocked after swimming, hair washing or showering, tilt your head sideways with that ear up, pull the ear upward and backward to put in ear-drops to dry out the ear. Make sure to get the drops all the way down in the ear canal, and then turn your head to let them drain out. These eardrops are sold without prescription.

Warning

If you have an ear infection, have had a perforated or otherwise injured eardrum, or ear surgery, you should consult an ear, nose and throat specialist before swimming or using any type of ear drops. If you don’t know if you have ever had a perforated, punctured, ruptured or otherwise injured eardrum, ask your physician.

If your physician advises it is safe, make up your own ear drops to use after swimming. Many doctors recommend rubbing alcohol as part of the mixture. As the alcohol evaporates, it absorbs the water, helps dry out the ear and may even kill the bacteria and fungi that cause swimmer’s ear. Another effective ingredient is boric acid powder (2 tsp/pint) or white vinegar (mixed 50/50 with alcohol). A weak acid environment discourages the growth of bacteria and fungi.

A dry ear is least likely to get infected. Efforts to remove water from your ear should be limited to the drying effects of alcohol or, if you have a perforated eardrum, a hair dryer. You should not use cotton swabs because they pack material deeper in the narrow ear canal, irritate the thin skin of the ear canal and can make it weep or bleed. If it is a frequently recurring problem, your otolaryngologist may recommend placing oily (or lanolin) ear drops in your ears before swimming to protect them from the effects of the water.

People with itchy, flaky ears or ears that have wax build up are very likely to develop swimmer’s ear. They should he especially conscientious about using the alcohol ear drops as described whenever water gets trapped into the ears. It may also help to have ears cleaned out each year before the swimming season starts.

Why Do Ears Itch?

An itchy ear is maddening. Sometimes it is caused by fungus or allergies, but more often it is a chronic dermatitis (skin inflammation) of the ear canal. One type is seborrheic dermatitis, a condition similar to dandruff. Patients should avoid foods that aggravate it, such as greasy foods, sugars and starches, carbohydrates and chocolate. Physicians may prescribe a cortisone eardrop at bedtime when ears itch. There is no long-term cure, but it can be controlled.

What about Gnats or Other Insects?

Many types of insects get into the ears. Gnats get tangled in the wax and can’t fly out. Bigger insects can’t turn around or crawl back out. Their motion can be painful and frightening. Wash out gnats with warm water from a rubber bulb syringe. (Remember to dry the ear afterwards with alcohol drops.) For a bigger insect, the first step is to fill the ear with mineral oil, which plugs off the breathing pores of the insect and kills it (it may take 5-to-10 minutes). See your physician to have the insect removed.