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What is swimmer's ear?

Also referred to as external otitis, swimmer's ear is typically a bacterial infection affecting the skin of the outer ear canal.

Occurring in both acute and chronic forms, the chief cause of swimmer's ear is excessive water exposure. Water being trapped in the ear is a major risk factor for developing swimmer's ear.

Likewise, inserting cotton swabs into the ear canal on a regular basis as a means of ear cleaning at home may also cause an outer ear infection.

Swimmer's ear symptoms

The main cause of ear popping is change in air pressure. This can happen for a variety of reasons, from planes frequently shifting their altitude to a train entering a tunnel - thereby compressing the air.

Colds, allergies, sinus infections and even enlargement of the adenoids can also cause excessive ear popping through Eustachian tube dysfunction. Sufferers of Eustachian tube dysfunction are discouraged from flying altogether or, at the very least, should use over-the-counter medication to help clear these lest symptoms are exacerbated during flight.

Swimmer's ear causes

As mentioned above, swimmer's ear is usually bought on by water trapped in the ear canal developing into an infection. This can happen wherever water is present, whether you've been swimming or diving, taken a shower or bath, or if you just happen to be out in humid conditions.

At the same time, swimmer's ear can be caused by foreign objects entering the ear canal - such as cotton swabs - scratches in the ear canal skin that let bacteria enter and grow, or allergic reactions to items of jewellery.

Swimmer's ear treatment

With a confirmed diagnosis of swimmer's ear, a doctor or hearing health professional will recommend treatment options appropriate for your case. These include:
  • Ear drops: Because they contain medication that will not only help clear up infection but also reduce swelling, drops tend to be the go-to for medical professionals when it comes to treating swimmer’s ear. Apply a few times a day for several days and be sure to finish the bottle, even if your symptoms have already abated.
  • Medical procedures: If symptoms are particularly severe, a doctor may need to clean out your ears or do some further exploration in the ear itself before recommending effective treatment. Surgery is not usually required, but a stay in hospital might be needed.
  • At-home solutions: While you’re waiting for ear drops or the results of medical intervention to take effect, paracetamol or ibuprofen will help provide pain relief for swimmer's ear. You should also steer clear of earphones or hearing aids while you’re recovering and keep your ears dry. Also, during this time, limit your use of shampoo and anything else that may irritate the outer ear.
Remember, if symptoms persist despite using any of the above remedies, talk to your audiologist about putting together a robust treatment plan.

How to prevent swimmer's ear?

Preventing swimmer's ear means taking several steps to ensure water does not get trapped inside your ear. This may involve:
  1. Wearing ear plugs while swimming
  2. Not entering water with uncertain cleanliness, e.g. rivers or lakes
  3. Tipping your head to the side after swimming to clear any excess water
  4. Drying outside your ears after every bath, shower and swimming session
  5. Never removing earwax with cotton buds, fingers, hairpins, etc.
By following these simple guidelines, you can be confident that you're doing everything you can to avoid developing swimmer’s ear and its debilitating effects.

Frequently asked questions

How long doest swimmer's ear last without treatment?

Despite swimmer's ear usually being able to clear up by itself without treatment over the course of several weeks, prompt medical intervention will stop any unpleasant symptoms and minimise the risk of any further complications developing. Make sure you see your GP as soon as possible to discuss how best to treat your swimmer's ear.

Can you swim with swimmer's ear?

You should avoid swimming whilst battling the symptoms of swimmer's ear. Going back in the pool before you're fully healed could make the problem even worse.

Why is swimmer's ear so painful?

Ear popping by itself is fine, as you are simply balancing the air pressure between outside and inside your middle ear. However, ear popping can be unpleasant for some and should be investigated if accompanied by other, more severe symptoms.