Is Swimmer’s Ear Dangerous?

Swimmer’s Ear, more than simply a summertime ear infection, can not only disrupt your good vibes but they can be painful and, in some instances, can have long term implications. 

Beginning with a slight itch that can increase quickly in intensity, many ear infections commonly include discomfort, even pain, in the tragus area (the prominent feature of your ear that protects the opening of the ear canal) or when tugging your earlobe, which can be distracting and can disrupt sleep.

Swimmer’s ear, on occasion, can get worse. Severe instances can include the discharge of fluid and/or pus from the ears, pain that radiates down the neck, indicating that they infection has spread to the lymph nodes, and fever.

Ear infections, especially those of the middle ear, can sometimes cause hearing loss.  Inflammation, your body’s natural immune response, and fluid buildup in the area behind the eardrum. The good news is that hearing loss from an ear infection is usually temporary. And once the underlying infection is addressed, your hearing is likely to be restored.

However, chronic ear infections in the middle ear can cause permanent changes to the nearby bones (mastoiditis) or even cysts to form (cholesteatoma).

But, in the absence of perforation or damage to the eardrum (tympanic membrane), most Swimmer’s Ear will be isolated to the outer ear. 

What Causes Swimmer’s Ear?

Outer ear infections (otitis externa) are an inflammation of the skin in the ear canal and come in two forms, fungal and bacterial. 

When moisture collects in the warm and dark environment of your ear canal, bacteria can grow. In the presence of tiny breaks in the skin, or when fungal spores are introduced, you have the classic cocktail for Swimmer’s Ear.

And while backyard or municipal swimming pools, and public beaches are thought to harbor the right (or wrong!) types of bacterial and fungal spores to generate Swimmer’s Ear, research indicates that that isn’t normally the case (1). 

More to blame are full-submersion water activities, humidity, getting caught in the rain, or just plain sweating in the summer sun.

The common theme is your ears get wet and don’t dry out quickly enough. And if proper care is not taken, an infection follows. 

How to Treat Swimmer’s Ear

Once you suspect that you have Swimmer’s Ear, it’s best to act quickly before advanced symptoms develop.

If you start feeling an itch, first take a moment to clear and dry your ear canal. Next, you can apply over-the-counter eardrops to both treat the infection and help the evaporation process(2). Bottles can range between $5-$25, a preventive care bargain when compared to a doctor’s visit.

According to the Mayo clinic, you should see a doctor when symptoms persist beyond one day, when pain is severe, or when your ear(s) drain fluid, puss, or blood.

How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear 

Treatment of Swimmer’s Ear costs an estimated $4 million annually(3) in prescription and over-the-counter treatments. More annoying to deal with are the lost training days for watersport athletes, and restless sleep and overall discomfort for the rest of us. As such, it’s best to take proper preventive care measures. 

Start by keeping your ears as dry as possible, especially following any full-immersion activities in water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the use of a towel on the outer ear, then tilting of the head and manipulation of the earlobe to allow moisture to escape. With caution, a hair dryer can be used, on its lowest settings, to help move air into the ear canal, and moisture out.

Some aquatic activities 

One important note: cotton swabs, like Q-Tips™ should not be used to dry the ear canal, as that could lead to more skin abrasions, and future problems. 

Anyone who’s planning to spend time in the water should consider using earplugs to keep moisture and germs at bay. This is especially true for kids who have a history of ear infections or who are currently using ear tubes to treat chronic issues. 

There are a wide variety of off-the-shelf options available for a fairly low price point. While more serious watersport enthusiasts, or those more prone to ear infections, may opt to invest in custom-fitted models which are molded by hearing health professional to the contours of your unique ear canals.

And if you know you’ll be swimming or engaging in an activity in which the ears can get wet, be gentle while cleaning your ears prior. Any new abrasions in the skin of the ear only make the possibility of infection more likely.

Remember, clean carefully and dry thoroughly for best results. 

For Hearing Aid Wearers

Keeping your ears dry and clear of the chance of infection also means not popping your hearing aids back in immediately after leaving the shower, the swim hole, or the summer sun. 

Give the ear canal time to air out so any moisture can evaporate.

You’ve taken the time to research and find the best hearing aids for your loss, you’ll want to protect your investment by keeping them dry. And though most modern hearing aids are designed to resist moisture, few are fully waterproof. 

That means you should take them out when going for a dip. Of course, taking hearing aids in and out is one way to create tiny abrasions on the skin of the ear canal which make you more susceptible to infection.

So, using swimming earplugs is an even better idea for anyone who wears hearing aids.

Hearing aid home care measures are important in proper ear hygiene. Not only to keep them in working order but also to keep your ears dry. 

Inserting hearing aids that are not properly dry is another good way to get an ear infection. Most hearing aid providers carry dehumidifiers that will do that job.

  1. Rebecca Calderon M.P.H. & Eric W. Mood M.P.H., An Epidemiological Assessment of Water Quality and "Swimmer’s Ear", Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal, Volume 37, 1982 - Issue 5, Pages 300-305, Published online 2013, May 8th, 
  2. Michael B. Strauss, Rodger L. Dierker, 15 Otitis Externa Associated with Aquatic Activities (swimmer's ear), Clinics in Dermatology, Volume 5, Issue 3, 1987, Pages 103-111,
  3. Timothy J Wade, Elizabeth A Sams, Michael J Beach, Sarah A Collier, and Alfred P Dufour, The incidence and health burden of earaches attributable to recreational swimming in natural waters: a prospective cohort study, The National Library of Medicine, Environ Health. 2013; 12: 67, Published online 2013, Aug 21st, 
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