How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear and Protect Your Hearing
Going to the beach or pool and swimming should be a fun and relaxing activity. But when ear pain and a sense of increased pressure cause discomfort, the good times quickly come to an end.
Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, is an inflammation or infection of the outer ear canal, which will be familiar to avid swimmers and surfers or anyone who regularly gets water in their ears.
Today we’ll learn how swimmer’s Ear is diagnosed and treated and what you can do to avoid a case of otitis externa in yourself or your children. First, let’s look at your ear anatomy and why Swimmer’s ear occurs in the first place.
What is Swimmer’s Ear?
|Swimmer’s ear is a layman’s term to describe a bacterial infection causing inflammation of the external ear canal.|
Since it is localised and occurs in the ear canal up until the eardrum only, this type of infection is medically known as otitis externa. It does usually not extend to the middle ear or the inner ear.
Getting to Know Your Ear Anatomy
Anatomy of the ear. Image source: Heba Hamdan
Your ear has external, middle, and inner portions.
The outer, visible part of the ear is made up of the pinna, a ridged cartilage covered by skin, and the ear canal.
The middle ear comprises the eardrum, ear bones and the eustachian tube, connecting the ear to the throat and nasal passage.
Finally, the internal ear is home to the spiral-shaped hearing organ called the cochlea, which transforms sound into nerve impulses that are sent to the brain.
When swimmer’s ear occurs, only the external ear is involved.
Causes of Swimmer’s Ear
A common cause of swimmer’s ear is the ear not drying entirely after being exposed to moisture. This may occur due to swimming, perspiration or prolonged exposure to humidity.
A moist ear canal is a perfect environment for bacteria, which grow and then infect the skin of the ear canal, causing inflammation.
Some risk factors can increase the chances of getting swimmer’s ear.
When the protective skin barrier is broken, bacteria can easily penetrate the ear canal. If the ear canal is damaged, scratched, has eczema or psoriasis, swimmer’s ear may develop more rapidly.
Narrow ear canals are another risk factor. Moisture can be trapped more easily in smaller ear canals. This is why we see swimmer’s ear more often in the younger population than in people above 20.
Swimming in polluted or unclean water has also been known to trigger swimmer’s ear as they contain an abundance of different harmful bacteria.
Swimmer’s Ear Symptoms
You’ll know that you are experiencing swimmer’s ear as the symptoms are acute.
Here’s a list of common symptoms to watch out for:
- Redness of the ear canal
- Pain, itching and tenderness
- Swelling of the ear canal, causing a blocked sensation
- Temporary hearing loss
- Discharge, puss or crusting of the ear canal
- Fever, in progressed cases
The severity of these symptoms can vary depending on the degree of inflammation in the ear.
If the infection is left untreated, the ear canal may become inflamed and very narrow.
This will affect the ability of sounds to reach the middle ear and result in temporary hearing loss. Sounds may feel unclear or muffled in the most acute phase of the infection.
It is important to note that the hearing loss that is caused by swimmer’s ear is temporary and not a permanent change in hearing levels.
Once the infection clears, the hearing also improves.
How to Treat Swimmer’s Ear
In mild cases, and with thorough drainage and clearing of the ear canal, an infection can resolve on its own.
However, swimmer’s ear can vary in degrees of severity. If pain is present, you shouldn’t hesitate to consult your GP.
Antibiotic drops or tablets and steroid-based ear drops can only be prescribed by your doctor.
In severe cases that last longer than three months, surgery may be required. A referral to an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) specialist would then be recommended by your GP.
How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear
- Don’t clean ear wax from your ears. Ear wax acts as a protective barrier and stops bacteria from growing in the ear canal.
- Try to keep your ears as dry as possible. After a wash or a swim, dry the ears out using a towel or even a hairdryer on the lowest setting.
- Preventative ear sprays for swimmer’s ear can be purchased at pharmacies and used before you go swimming. Spraying this before getting the ears wet can help prevent bacterial growth and promote the ear drying well. These products have alcohol as an active ingredient which evaporates quickly and enables quick drying of the ear canal.
- Try to keep the skin intact in the ear canal to stop bacteria from moving into the ear canal more freely.
- If you are susceptible to swimmer’s ear, the use of earplugs can help prevent water from penetrating your ear in the first place. These can be bought from a pharmacy as a generic plug or custom made by an audiologist for a snug fit.
By looking after our ears in the water, you can prevent the possibility of ear infections and reduce the effects of hearing loss caused by swimmer’s ears.
Being proactive and understanding your ear health is a great start to managing swimmer’s ear if you or your children are prone to getting it.
Should you have further questions about your ear health, visiting an audiologist or your general practitioner is a great place to start to ensure you can still have fun and enjoy being in the water.
You don’t want swimmer’s ear to stop you from diving headfirst into your next water activity.
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