As children and adults alike rush into pools across America, many will be afflicted with swimmer’s ear, an inflammation of the skin of the ear canal. In fact, 1 in 10 Americans will have swimmer’s ear at some point in their lives.
Swimmer’s ear is caused by water that is entrapped in your ear canal after swimming. This creates an environment that fosters bacteria growth, creating a painful infection. Those who swim more frequently are more likely to be infected. However, anyone can acquire swimmer’s ear from even a quick dip in the pool. In addition to the water, there needs to be some kind of minor trauma to the ear canal that has broken the skin barrier. Also, those who use cotton swabs to remove earwax are at a greater risk as cotton swabs cause minor trauma to the skin, allowing bacteria an entry point. My colleague, Dr. Eric Smouha, the director of otology and neurotology at Mount Sinai, recommends that no person use cotton swabs because earwax protects against infection.
Common symptoms of swimmer’s ear are pain, swelling of the skin, hearing loss, and a clogged feeling within 24 hours of swimming. Some patients experience a discharge from the ear. However, swimmer’s ear is easily treatable for most patients. Antibiotic drops are usually sufficient. “Most patients will experience relief within three to four days of starting the drops, and will be better after a weeklong course,” Dr. Smouha said.
Nonetheless, swimmer’s ear can become chronic for a subset of patients. “Diabetics and patients who are immunosuppressed have the highest risk of developing more severe complications from swimmer’s ear.” You should contact a specialist if your ear remains clogged up after one week. “For these more complicated cases, we can suction the ear, or prescribe additional medications like acetic acid and cortisone.” Make sure to keep your ear dry while recovering by refraining from swimming for two weeks and being careful when your shower or wash your hair. Once you recover, Dr. Smouha recommends that you use ear plugs when swimming for the rest of the summer.