Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the ear canal, so-named because it commonly occurs after swimming. However, it may occur after getting the ear canal wet for any reason, even washing one’s hair.
But why would getting your ear wet cause infection?
The cause is not germs in the water. You can get swimmer’s ear from swimming in a chlorinated pool. Rather, having water in the ear canal changes the pH (acid level), making it easier for germs already on your skin to invade, thus causing infection. Normally the ear canal is quite acidic, like vinegar. Can you imagine bacteria thriving in vinegar? Water has a neutral pH, which allows microorganisms to survive much more easily (like pond scum – an unpleasant comparison, but there are similarities).
Occasionally an ear canal infection will start with a scratch to the ear canal – be wary of sharp objects such as fingernails and hairpins. Now and then a chemical, such as hair spray, will cause an irritation that allows infection to invade.
Symptoms of swimmer’s ear include swelling of the ear, pain or tenderness of the outer ear, discharge from the ear, difficulty hearing, or a feeling of fullness. Occasionally it causes severe pain or swollen glands. Only rarely does it cause a fever.
If you or a loved one is suffering from swimmer’s ear, these 5 tips for effective treatment should come in handy:
1. Prevention is key. Keep the ears dry whenever possible. Use ear plugs if needed. Dry your ears immediately after showering with a towel and possibly a hair dryer on a low setting.
2. Avoid injury. Do not put anything into your ear smaller than your little finger, including fingernails. Avoid using Q-tips, as these tend to push wax and debris into the ear canal, and sometimes scratch the ear. Ear wax is in the ear for a reason – it keeps the bugs out (including germs). Avoid hair products that cause irritation or a rash, which weaken the body’s ability to fight infection.
3. Try a home remedy. Because the problem is related to the acid content of the ear, restoring the acid level to the ear canal is often effective for mild infection. You can do this yourself using a 50-50 mix of white vinegar and water. Drop enough of the solution into your ear canal to fill it, four times daily for 5 to 7 days, allowing the excess to run out. Use a cotton ball if you’d like, but do not push it into the ear canal.
4. Use a prescription medication. You’ll need to see your doctor if the above is ineffective, you’re not sure of the diagnosis, or your symptoms worsen. Prescription antibiotic drops are usually prescribed. Generic Cortisporin runs about $25 a bottle, whereas brand name is three times as much.
5. Have your doctor flush your ears. When the ear canal is full of pus (or wax or debris) it becomes very difficult to clear an infection. Even with a flashlight it is not possible to see all the way into the ear canal – a special instrument is required. For most patients, flushing the ears should be left to a professional.
Once your ear is back to normal, be careful to avoid re-infection. Keeping your ears dry and just leaving them alone is the best advice. Your ear canals were designed to take care of themselves and will do so if you allow them.
Copyright 2010 Cynthia J. Koelker, M.D.