Swimmer’s Ear

Reviewed by Charge Audiologist
Ron Trounson

Table of Contents

What Causes Swimmer's Ear?

Swimmer’s ear, medically referred to as otitis externa, is an inflammation or infection of the outer ear canal.

Under normal conditions, waxy, water-repellent secretions from sebaceous and apocrine glands protect your ears. However, when these usual barriers are lost, the skin becomes inflamed and macerated, increasing the risk of bacterial or fungal invasion.

A common cause of the breakdown of this barrier happens when water enters the ear canal and doesn’t drain out, such as when you go swimming or wash your hair.

The skin becomes soft and soggy when the ear canal is wet for an extended period. This makes ears more susceptible to injury and creates an ideal environment for bacteria or fungi to flourish and cause an infection.

Other causes and contributing conditions may include:

  • Cleaning inside the ear canal with cotton buds, hair clips or other sharp objects.
  • Shampoos, hairsprays and hair dyes that may irritate and emaciate your skin.
  • Eczema or dermatitis causes the skin to break and no longer acts as a protective barrier.
  • Insufficient (cerumen) earwax production to protect your ear canal.
Swimmer's ear anatomy diagram & human ear
Swimmers ear anatomy diagram & human ear showing symptoms.
CNX OpenStax, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

8 Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear

Ear pain is the most common complaint about swimmer’s ear or otitis externa. With enough swelling and discharge, conductive hearing loss is also common.

  1. Pain, swelling and tenderness in the ear canal.
  2. The outer ear may be sensitive and sore to the touch.
  3. Itchiness in and around the ear.
  4. Foul-smelling pus in the ear canal.
  5. Fever, or an increase in body temperature above the average normal temperature.
  6. Conductive hearing loss
  7. Hearing noises such as ringing, buzzing, or humming.

Treatment for Swimmer’s Ear

Treatment is aimed at cleaning the ear canal and keeping it dry.

In mild cases, a healthcare practitioner may clean the outer ear canal using a light suction device called microsuction. A doctor may also prescribe an ointment or ear drops for you to use at home.

A test swab might be taken and sent to a pathology lab to identify a bacterial or fungal infection.

Sometimes antibiotics are needed for severe bacterial infections. Take the entire course as your doctor prescribes, even if you feel better after a day or two.

Ear plugs help to prevent swimmers ear
Ear plugs help to prevent swimmers ear.

How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear

Earplugs or cotton wool coated in Vaseline to keep water out of your ear canal are good options when swimming or bathing.

When washing your hair, tip your head forward, and your ears will act as umbrellas. Washing your hair this way will minimise the amount of water entering your ear canals.

It would be best if you avoided any water activities like swimming, surfing, and diving for the duration of the infection and at least one week after.

Jerika Pring

Jerika Pring

I received my Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 2009 and have 10 years of nursing experience effectively and efficiently managing both patients and staff. I've had experience in Medical and Surgical Wards, Otolaryngology, Gynecology and Obstetrics, Neurology, Pediatrics, Aged Care, and worked as a certified laser technician.

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