As temperatures heat up, so do cases of swimmer’s ear (otitis externa)—a painful condition that increases during summer months as kids spend hours in the pool.
Our Utah ear, nose and throat doctors treat swimmer’s ear cases year round. But we typically see a spike during the summer. Today we’re answering 5 questions about swimmer’s ear.
1. What is Swimmer’s Ear?
Swimmer’s ear is an outer-ear infection. That’s an important distinction since inner-ear infections are more common. We typically see swimmer’s ear in patients who regularly swim—usually a few days after swimming in a pool.
But you don’t have to swim to get swimmer’s ear. Water trapped in the ear canal is the cause of the infection. When water gets trapped in the ear canal, bacteria can multiply within the ear and that causes infection and irritation. If the infection progresses it may involve the outer ear and cause pain. That means any water in the ear can cause infection and it’s possible to get swimmer’s ear without ever swimming in a pool. You may contract the infection after bathing or showering, too.
2. What are Swimmer’s Ear Symptoms?
Like most infections, pain or discomfort is the most obvious symptom. In the case of swimmer’s ear, that pain can be mild to moderate or even intense and radiate to your neck, face or side of your head. If you tug on your ear (pull it downward) and pain intensifies, you may have swimmer’s ear.
Other symptoms of swimmer’s ear include an itchy ear, a feeling or sensation that your ear is clogged, fever, decrease in hearing and swollen lymph nodes.
Here is a quick way you can tell if you have swimmer’s ear or an inner-ear infection: wiggle the outside of your ear. If it’s painful, you may have swimmer’s ear. If it doesn’t hurt, you more likely have an inner-ear infection.
If you notice any of these symptoms, we recommend you contact a Draper ENT doctor or our ENT doctors in Salt Lake City to set up an appointment to diagnose and treat your infection.
3. Is Swimmer’s Ear Infectious?
The short answer is: no. Swimmer’s ear is an infection but not infectious.
You can’t “catch” swimmer’s ear from another person. If you or one of your children is diagnosed with swimmer’s ear, you don’t need to quarantine that person. Just make sure they keep their ears dry and follow your doctor’s recommendation to treat swimmer’s ear.
The bacteria that leads to swimmer’s ear is often found in public pools. Polluted waters are another common source of swimmer’s ear and, as you might expect, we don’t recommend people swim in polluted waters—ever.
4. How Do You Treat Swimmer’s Ear?
Once our ENT doctors diagnose swimmer’s ear, we quickly move into treating swimmer’s ear. Antibiotic eardrops are the most common way to cure swimmer’s ear. If swimmer’s ear is in the early stages, we may recommend careful cleaning of the ear canal and use of eardrops. If the swimmer’s ear infection is severe—and the patient doesn’t have a perforated eardrum—your ENT doctor may prescribe antibiotics. If the ear canal is swollen shut, your otolaryngologist (that’s the official name for an ENT doctor) may place a sponge or wick in the ear canal to help ensure the eardrops are effective in eliminating the infection. We may also prescribe pain medications.
Although you can purchase over-the-counter swimmer’s ear eardrops, we urge you to contact an ENT doctor and allow them to prescribe the best treatment plan. In some cases, the eardrops may inflame the condition rather than help it.
5. How Can I Prevent Swimmer’s Ear?
Swimmer’s ear prevention is fairly easy but not always an attractive option for children. The best advice is to keep ears as dry as possible. That means a swim cap or fitted ear plugs will help avoid swimmer’s ear infections.
But let’s be honest here; unless your child is a member of the swim team, he or she has no desire to wear a swim cap or ear plugs all summer. That’s why we recommend our patients thoroughly dry their ears after swimming or showering. The less moisture in your ear, the better. And be sure to leave some earwax since it helps prevent swimmer’s ear.