Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmers have increased risk for a condition called swimmer’s ear, an outer ear infection that happens when bacteria or fungi enter tiny cuts in the ear canal.

According in William Remington, M.D., Mayo Clinic Health System otorhinolaryngologist at Winneshiek Medical Center, water normally flows in and out of the ear canal without causing problems. He says, “The ear’s shape and its protective lining (ear wax) guard against bacteria and fungi. But, if water remains in your ear for a long period of time (such as when you are swimming), the wax can dissolve and bacteria or fungi from contaminated water can penetrate your skin, causing infection.”

Swimmer’s ear causes pain and swelling in the outer ear. Generally, moving or pushing on the outer ear is very uncomfortable, your ears may itch, you may notice drainage from the infected ear and sounds may become muffled due to swelling.

Swimmer’s ear is most common in children and young adults; however, older adults may also be affected. Dr. Remington says, “If an adult has an underlying medical condition such as diabetes, their immune system may be impaired. Diabetic patients are more susceptible to severe cases of swimmer’s ear that may be difficult to treat.”

Although swimmer’s ear is painful, treatment is generally not an emergency. To clear the infection, topical medications may be applied after the area is cleaned by a doctor. Oral medications may be prescribed to accompany the use of antibiotic eardrops.

The best way to avoid swimmer’s ear is through prevention practices:

  • Keep your ears dry – Dry your outer ear with a soft towel. Do not insert your finger or other objects (such as Q-tips) into the ear canal.
  • Do not swim in polluted water.
  • Use earplugs designed for water use.
  • Excess, hardened earwax should not be dug out with objects such as a cotton swab.
  • Cover your ears when using hair products such as hairspray.

And when can you get back in the water? Dr. Remington advises that patients generally need to wait one week to ten days after treatment begins, but each situation is different due to the severity of the infection. Follow your doctor’s suggestions; they will provide instructions personalized for you.