Swimmer’s ear or otitis externa refers to inflammation and infection in the ear canal. Although there are causes of this infection other than swimming, it gets its name because it is most common in warm weather months and occurs frequently in children who enjoy a lot of time in the water.

Symptoms: 

  • Pain and swelling in the ear canal.
  • Swelling and redness around the ear.
  • Occasionally there may be drainage from the ear canal.
  • If fever occurs, it is very slight.

Cause:

  • Surface of the ear canal is disturbed so that germs establish a place to grow.
  • Irritation to the ear canal by trauma e.g. as  objects used to clean out wax etc.
  • Water retained in  the ear canal that then causes the surface skin to erode and infection to occur.

Prevention:

  • Keep ear canal dry. When swimming use earplugs. Best is wax that can be purchased at the pharmacy and rolled into a ball that fits into the opening of the ear canal. DO NOT MAKE TOO SMALL SO THAT THE WAX GOES INTO THE CANAL.
  • Use eardrops that will keep infection from developing. A mixture of half rubbing alcohol and half white vinegar is just right. Put a few drops in the ear canal both before and after swimming or when exposed to lots of water.
  • After swimming, a cotton wick may be used to draw water from the ear canal. Don’t push the cotton into the canal; use only as a wick.

Treatment:

  • Since most of the infection is caused by bacteria, usually antibiotic drops, provided by prescription, will be necessary.
  • Over the counter (OTC) remedies may be useful in preventing infection but are ineffective in treating it.
  • For pain, ibuprofen or acetaminophen will be helpful. Remember to use only the prescribed dose, determined by age and weight.
  • I there is considerable pain, swelling, dizziness or pain in the jaw, seek medical care.

Swimmers ear is common. Pesky and can be painful. It is not generally an emergency and can easily be managed by the right treatment. Pay attention to prevention as suggested and the long summer months should then be filled with swimming and not swimmers ear!

Dr. Olson Huff