What is Swimmer’s Ear and What are the Symptoms?

what is swimmer's ear and what are the symptoms

Ear infections can be incredibly painful! Not only can they interfere with your hearing and balance, but they can cause a surprising amount of discomfort – making it hard to work, sleep, or even think straight.

Swimmer’s ear is an ear infection common among swimmers (hence the name), but it’s a problem that just about anyone can face even if they never step into a swimming pool!

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In this article, we’ll take a look the problem, answering questions like:

  • What is swimmer’s ear?
  • What causes swimmer’s ear?
  • How can I tell if it’s a swimmer’s ear infection or another type of infection?
  • What are some simple swimmer’s ear prevention tricks?

By the time you reach the end of the page, you’ll know everything you need to about this ear infection…

swimmer's ear

What is Swimmer’s Ear?

MayoClinic says,

“Swimmer’s ear is an infection in the outer ear canal, which runs from your eardrum to the outside of your head.”

The American Academy of Otolaryngology says,

“Affecting the outer ear, swimmer’s ear (also called acute otitis externa) is a painful condition resulting from inflammation, irritation, or infection.”

MedicineNet says,

“Swimmer’s ear, or external otitis, is typically a bacterial infection of the skin of the outer ear canal.”

If you want to know what causes swimmer’s ear, the answer is simple: bacteria!

There are a number of different types of bacteria that can cause the problem, including:

  • Streptococcus
  • Staphylococcus
  • Pseudomonas

But how do the bacteria get into your ear canal in the first place?

There are a number of things that can cause swimmer’s ear:

Excessive Water Exposure

If you spend a lot of time in the water, you increase the amount of moisture trapped inside your ear canal. That moisture provides the bacteria already present in your ear the perfect environment to grow, leading to a surge in microbe activity.

The bacteria is able to overwhelm your immune defenses and infect the walls of your ear canal.There are many ways to be exposed to “too much” water:

  • Water sports, including surfing, kayaking, swimming, or water skiing
  • Hot tubs and saunas
  • Taking overly long showers and baths

Basically, if water gets into your ear canal and – due to debris, ear wax, or other causes – can’t escape, your risk of bacterial infection rises!

Ear Canal Injuries

If you suffer an injury to your ear canal, the damaged tissue is more susceptible to bacterial infection.

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If you scratch your ear too hard, debris has damaged your ear, or there is some form of wound or injury, the risk of swimmer’s ear increases.

Introducing Objects into the Ear

Worried about a build-up of ear wax? You may try to clean it out using a cotton swab, a car key, a bobby pin, or some other object, but you’re only increasing your risk of an ear infection.

Every time you insert something into your ear, you are bringing bacteria from the world outside your ear. The sharp, pointed objects may also scratch or injure your ear canal.

Chemicals

Did you know that the chemicals in your hair spray or hair dyes can affect your ear canal?

The strong chemicals may cause irritation, increasing your ear canal’s susceptibility to infection.

Skin Conditions

Eczema and seborrhea are just a few of the skin conditions that can affect your ear canal.If these skin conditions are present, your immune system is unable to defend your ear canal against infection, making it easier for the bacteria to cause swimmer’s ear.

Reduced ImmunityIf you suffer from diabetes, HIV, or anything else that reduces immune function, your body will be unable to suppress the activity of the bacteria living in your ear canal.

Note: The bacteria are always there, but your body can usually handle their presence. With reduced immunity, the bacteria can grow out of control!

Now that you know what causes the swimmer’s ear infection, it’s time to learn how to recognize the symptoms…​

Swimmer’s Ear Symptoms

How can you be certain it’s swimmer’s ear and not some other problem? There are many types of infections that can affect your ear, so it’s important that you’re sure.

Here are a few of the more common swimmer’s ear symptoms:

Leakage of Fluid

If you notice that there is fluid leaking from your ear, it’s a pretty good sign of swimmer’s ear. The fluid may be yellow or yellow-green in color, will smell awful, and may resemble pus.

Swelling

Inflammation is your body’s way of preventing the spread of infection. Your ear canal may swell up as a result of the bacteria burrowing into your skin. Your ear may feel “full” or like there is a blockage.

Loss of Hearing

The swelling in your ear canal will reduce your ability to hear. Thankfully, the problem is only temporary, and your hearing will return to normal once the infection clears up.

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Pain

You may suffer from sharp, acute pain, or it may be a dull, chronic sort of pain. You’ll notice the pain when you pull on your outer ear or when you chew. The pain ranges from minor to severe, depending on the severity of the infection.

Itching

Your ear canal will usually be very itchy, and the itching sensation may spread to your outer ear as well. DO NOT use a cotton swap or anything else sharp to scratch your ear – that could just make things worse!

Remember: not all of the symptoms will present at the same time. There will usually be two or three at least. If you notice any of these symptoms, they’re a good sign you’ve got swimmer’s ear.​

swimmers ear vs ear infection

Swimmers Ear vs Ear Infection

In answering the question “what is swimmer’s ear“, we’ve taught you about this one ear problem. However, there is another type of ear infection that affects your middle ear cavity rather than the outer ear canal. This is known as “acute otitis media” or an acute middle ear infection.

According to SLCH Kids Today, these ear infections are most common among children between the ages of 6 and 24 months, but can be present up to 8 years old.

Your child may be suffering an ear infection if they experience:

  • Tugging at or pulling at one or both ears
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fussiness
  • Ear drainage
  • Loss of balance
  • Fever (about half of children experience this)
  • Decreased hearing
  • Pain or discomfort in or around the ears

Note: This type of ear infection usually shows up after the third day of a common cold. It’s a far less serious problem, one usually linked with the flu/cold.

Ear infections are only common among children. If you are an adult and experiencing an infection, it’s much more likely to be swimmer’s ear than a common ear infection.

how to prevent swimmers ear

Swimmer’s Ear Prevention

If you want to know how to prevent swimmer’s ear, the good news is that it’s easier than you’d think!

Here are a few simple tricks to reduce your risk of swimmers ear infection:

Keep stuff out of your ears

Note: If you can’t break the habit and have to clean your ears with something, consider using The Oto-Tip, a safe solution for cleaning your ears. It prevents you from digging in too deep into your ears and the soft tip cleans your ears without risk of scratching or damaging your ear canal.

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This should go without saying, but we’re saying it anyways! Don’t scratch your ears with keys, pens, bobby pins, or anything else even slightly sharp.

If you don’t insert anything in your ears, there’s no risk of scratching the ear canal!

Dry your ears

After you step out of the shower, bath, pool, lake, sauna, hot tub, or ocean, take a few minutes to dry off your ears. 

You can use a hair dryer on the “cool” setting, holding it a couple of inches from your ears. Or, pour a few drops of rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide into your ears to kill off the bacteria.

Stop moisture from getting in

If you swim a lot or take long baths or showers, it’s a good idea to protect your ears. Use ear plugs, or place cotton balls with Vaseline (on the outside of the ball) in your ears.

If no water can get in, the risk of infection seriously decreases!

Kill off bacteria

Keep your ears clean, and you won’t have to worry about bacterial infections. Pour a few drops of a 1:1 mixture of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol into your ear, or use hydrogen peroxide.

DO NOT use a cotton swab to get the liquid out, but let it drain on its own. The strong mixtures will help to keep bacteria population under control.

Swim in clean water

This may be easier said than done, but it’s something to keep in mind! This means you need to clean out your pool and hot tub regularly. Stay away from dirty lakes, rivers, or highly polluted beaches. Be wary of getting into public pools or water parks. The risk of bacterial infection significantly increases at these places!

Swimmer’s ear can be serious if left untreated, so take steps to deal with the problem! You’ll find that it’s an easy infection to clear up, and even easier to prevent.

Follow the advice above to reduce your risk of bacterial ear infections.

Your ears are delicate instruments! Take care of them, and they will serve you well for years to come.

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