Head & Neck

What to Do for Swimmer’s Ear

written by Becki Andrus
What to Do for Swimmer's Ear

Spending time at the water park or in a local swimming pool can be a great family activity, but the fun quickly comes to an end if one of your family members experiences an ear infection after swimming. Swimmer’s ear (also known as otitis externa) often happens when water stays in the ear after swimming. The moist environment in the outer ear canal creates the perfect conditions for bacterial growth.

The outer ear canal runs between the outside of your head to the eardrum. When this area is infected, it can cause serious pain and lead to complications if left untreated.

How to Tell If You Have Swimmer’s Ear

The symptoms of swimmer’s ear are usually mild in the beginning, and include:

  • Itching within the ear canal
  • Drainage from the ears
  • Slight redness of the skin within the ear
  • Mild discomfort that intensifies when tugging on the ear or pushing on the small bump in front of the ear

As the infection progresses, you will notice that the symptoms intensify:

  • Increased itching
  • Pain and sensitivity
  • More fluid drainage
  • Partial blockage of the ear (your ear feels “full”)
  • Muffled or decreased hearing

Serious infections can cause major symptoms, including:

  • Complete blockage
  • Severe pain, sometimes radiating from the ear into the neck, face, or head
  • Fever
  • Swelling and redness of the outer ear
  • Swollen lymph nodes

It’s important to monitor the symptoms so you know when it is time to talk to a doctor about the infection.

Potential Complications of Swimmer’s Ear

Prompt treatment is usually sufficient to eliminate the infection and help your ear heal. Without prompt treatment, you might experience complications from the infection, such as:

  • Hearing Loss: A temporary loss of hearing is common because of the blockage within the ear. Usually, the muffled hearing goes away when the infection is healed.
  • Chronic Infection: If the symptoms last for more than three months, then you might be diagnosed with a chronic ear infection. These treatments are more difficult and patients find it challenging to get ahead of the infection.
  • Infection Spreading: Initially, the infection is only in the ear canal. When the fungus or bacteria is left untreated, then it can cause a deeper infection that damages deeper layers of tissue, cartilage, and bone. A serious spread of the infection can develop into advanced skill base osteomyelitis, affecting the nerves and brain (which can be life-threatening).

Early Stage Treatments for Swimmer’s Ear

In the earliest stages of the swimmer’s ear, the infection can often be treated at home. Here are a few treatment tips that can be used for yourself or your child:

  • Keep it Dry: Since moisture increases the conditions for the spread of bacteria, it’s important to keep the ears dry during recovery. Avoid swimming pools and water parks. Try bathing instead of showering to keep the water away from the ears. If you are going to be exposed to water, then use earplugs to keep the ear canal dry. If water gets in the ear, use a blow dryer on the lowest setting to dry the ear canal (hold the dryer about a foot away when pointed at the ear).
  • Don’t Put Anything in the Ear Canal: It’s important to note that you should avoid putting any objects in your ears, such as cotton swabs or fingers. Inserting things into the ear canal can cause damage to the sensitive skin within the ear, which can also increase the risk of infection.
  • Ear Drops: You can make homemade ear drops using hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, rubbing alcohol, or mineral oil. Over the counter ear drops can be purchased at your local drug store.  If the infection doesn’t clear up at home, then a doctor might prescribe medicated ear drops or antibiotics.

Also, be diligent about prevention if you experience recurring ear infections. Keep your ears dry after swimming, avoid swimming in areas with high bacterial counts, never put foreign objects in the ears, and avoid irritants such as hair products.

Prompt Treatment to Avoid Complications

Swimmer’s ear is quite common and can affect people of all ages. If bacteria are overtaking your ear canal, then it’s important that you are proactive with treatment. Eliminating the infection in the earliest stages is the fastest way to get ahead of the problem. Delaying treatment might lead to a more serious infection and dangerous complications.

When should you talk to a doctor about an ear infection? If at-home treatments aren’t working, or you notice that the symptoms are getting worse, then it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with an ENT as soon as possible. Watch the symptoms for 36 – 48 hours, and then call for an examination right away if you don’t see that the infection is getting better.

An ear, nose, and throat specialist offers a variety of treatment options with personal recommendations based on the severity of your infection. Potential treatments include:

  • Cleaning the Ear Canal: Sometimes, ear wax is blocking the ear canal and holding the moisture inside. For the other treatments to work, your doctor might need to clear the ear canal first. The doctor can use a suction device, ear irrigation, or a specific tool known as an ear curette. Don’t try these treatments at home – they should only be done in a doctor’s office.
  • Medications: Your doctor might prescribe ear drops or pills that help by fighting the infection. Steroids decrease swelling, antibiotics kill bacteria, or antifungal medications are used to fight off a fungal infection. Always follow the recommended dosage and usage of these medications. For example, it’s important to continue taking the antibiotics for the full treatment time, even if your symptoms have subsided.

Treatment from the Best ENT in Frisco and Plano, TX

If you suspect an ear infection, then our team is here to help. We offer ENT services for families in Collin County. Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat has two convenient offices located in Frisco or Plano, TX. You can request an appointment using our online form, or by calling (972) 596-4005.

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