Care for a swim? Never will you ever decline an invite; though news of ear infections may scare you from time to time. But, is it true or just a myth? Can you really get an ear infection from swimming?
Yes, you can get an ear infection from swimming, though the severity depends on what part of the ear you are referring to. In general, swimming usually affects the outer ear canal more than any other ear part and is most commonly known as the “swimmer’s ear”.
The ear consists of three distinct components:
- Outer Ear: The part you can see
- Middle Ear: Separated from the outer ear by the eardrum and have tiny bones that amplify sound waves
- Inner Ear: The location where sound waves are converted into electrical impulses and sent to the brain
Outer Ear Infections: Defined
An outer ear infection is known medically as otitis externa. One type of otitis externa is commonly known as the swimmer’s ear, which is an infection frequently caused by contact with moisture. In fact, nearly 2.4 million healthcare visits are caused by “swimmer’s ear” each year in the United States.
Although it can affect anyone, the swimmer’s ear is most prevalent in children (due to their narrow ear canals) and during the summer months (because of the increased use of swimming pools and lakes). Among the possible symptoms of swimmer’s ear are:
- Itchiness in the ear
- An ache that may become severe
- Difficulty hearing (sound may seem muffled/muffled hearing)
- Fluid or pus dripping from the ear canal
Your Natural Ear Defenses
Your outer ear canals are equipped with natural defenses that help keep them clean and prevent infections. Protective characteristics include:
The ear canal is lined with a thin, water-repellent, slightly acidic film that inhibits bacterial growth. This waxy film helps dead skin cells and other debris travel to the ear canal opening to keep the ear canal clean.
The Outer Ear
The outer ear, particularly around the opening of the ear canal, aids in preventing the entry of foreign objects.
Why Do You Get Swimmer’s Ear?
Most of the time, the ear is capable of fighting off the germs on its own. You have your ear wax to thank for that.
Your ear wax helps protect the ear canal from damage and inhibits the growth of bacteria, despite receiving little respect. However, if the skin is scratched, pathogens can enter the ear canal and cause an infection.
These are the common causes of your ear pain:
- Allowing an excessive amount of water into your ears.
- Cotton swab cleaning the ear canal excessively.
- Permitting cosmetic chemicals from products like hairspray to enter the ear canal, causes a sensitivity reaction.
- Scratching the interior or exterior of the ear causes small skin tears that can harbor infection.
- Having something lodged in one’s ear.
Things That Can Get You Swimmer’s Ear
- Frequent swimming, especially in public pools
- Swimming in areas that may contain excessive bacteria, such as hot tubs or polluted water
From Acute to Chronic
Acute swimmer’s ear (acute otitis externa) may develop into chronic if:
- The ear’s physical structure makes treatment difficult
- The bacterium (or fungus) is an extremely uncommon strain
- You react negatively to antibiotic eardrops
- Infection is bacterial and fungal in nature
A swimmer’s ear inconvenience ranges from mild discomfort to having trouble sleeping. If you don’t want to have an infected ear in the first place, try these easy steps to prevent infection from happening.
Dry Your Ears Thoroughly
Healthcare providers recommend keeping as much excess moisture out of the ear canal as possible to prevent swimmer’s ear.
After bathing and swimming, gently dry your ears by wiping the outer ear with a soft washcloth. Almost everyone has experienced the sensation of water in the ears after (or during) a swim. You can help prevent a moist environment from the ear canal by tilting your head to one side and allowing the liquid to escape.
The Merck Manual recommends mixing equal parts of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar and placing two drops in each ear after swimming to dry the ears. The alcohol will evaporate any water trapped in the ear, while the vinegar will alter the pH of the ear to prevent the growth of bacteria.
You may also use a hairdryer or blow dryer on its lowest setting but keep it at least one foot away from the ear.
Wear Extra Gears
Those who swim frequently should also wear a swim cap that fits snugly and covers their ears to keep as much water out as possible.
Avoid Polluted Swimming Areas
Avoid swimming in polluted or contaminated water as these areas have more bacteria inhabitants that can trigger an increased risk of ear infection and any other ear pain.
Have Some Drops of Diluted Solution
Using drops of a diluted solution of acetic acid or alcohol in the ears after swimming can help prevent swimmer’s ear, particularly in children who experience it frequently. These drops are available without a prescription, but children with ear tubes or a perforated eardrum should not use them.
First, your healthcare provider will inquire about your health history and current symptoms. He or she will administer a physical examination for both of your ears.
Your provider may use a lighted instrument to examine your ears (otoscope). This will help determine if your middle ear is also infected. Some individuals may have both infections.
If your ear has pus draining, your healthcare provider may take a sample for testing. It’s known as an ear drainage culture. Cotton swabs are gently inserted into the ear canal to obtain a sample. The sample is then sent to a laboratory in order to determine the cause of the ear infection.
If left untreated or treated promptly, the swimmer’s ear is typically not serious, but complications and severe pain can occur.
- Malignant otitis externa: Infection can also escalate to the bones and cartilage of the skull.
- Chronic otitis externa: Persistent or recurrent infection.
- Constricted ear canal: Scar tissue from repeated infections can narrow the ear canal, which prevents water to drain effectively. In fact, narrow ear canals may impair hearing or cause a temporary hearing loss.
- Infection of the face: The infection spreads through tiny voids in the surrounding cartilage and causes distressing facial swelling.
The way you treat the swimmer’s ear depends on the infection’s severity and pain level. A health care provider may prescribe different directions and treatment options like antibiotic ear drop to combat the infection, possibly in combination with a medication to reduce ear canal swelling.
Typically, ear drops are administered multiple times per day for 7–10 days. Though this can vary, particularly in chronic cases that can last for weeks or months.
Treatment reduces the duration of symptoms. If an allergy or skin condition is the underlying cause of the problem, the doctor will treat these conditions first. The spray will include acetic acid, while the drops will include a corticosteroid. If this does not work, antifungal ear drops may be of assistance.
Distinction Between Swimmer’s Ear and Middle Ear Infection
An acute middle ear infection (acute otitis media) is extremely common in children. Similar to the symptoms of a swimmer’s ear, most middle ear infections cause pain, hearing loss, and possibly drainage.
However, a middle ear infection does not cause pain when the outer ear is pulled or when the cartilage piece in the front of the ear is pushed.
Those with middle ear infections may also have a history of these infections, have ear tubes, or have undergone other surgeries in the past, and typically have a greater degree of hearing loss.
Typically, middle ear infections do not result in redness of the outer ear canal or ear. It is essential for a physician to distinguish between these two conditions, especially because their treatments can vary greatly.
Not Just a Problem for Swimmers
According to the University of Iowa, despite its name, swimmer’s ear is more prevalent in non-swimmers than in swimmers. Those who spend a great deal of time outdoors, such as farmers, are frequently infected.
Although it is more common in children and young adults, a swimmer’s ear can affect people of any age. Since a swimmer’s ear is caused by trapped water or moisture in the ear canal, it can be contracted by taking showers or baths, washing one’s hair, or being in a moist or humid environment.
A swimmer’s ear can also be caused by some other objects becoming lodged in the ear canal, excessive ear cleaning, or exposure to chemicals such as hair dyes or hairspray.
If you have ear canal-affecting skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis, you may be more susceptible to developing swimmer’s ear. Additionally, those who wear earplugs, earbuds, or hearing aids may be at a greater risk.