The summer months are the time to enjoy the beautiful Colorado sunshine. With some days in the triple digits, many people try to fight the heat by going for a dip.

Whether you are a competitive swimmer or enjoy swimming for fun, swimmer’s ear is a particularly unpleasant condition that people of all ages should be cautious about. Read on to learn more.

What is Swimmer’s Ear?

swimmers ear treatment

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that swimmer’s ear, also known as external otitis or otitis externa, is a “bacterial infection typically caused by water that has stayed in the outer ear canal for a long period of time.”

Water in the ear creates a moist condition that is perfect for bacteria to grow and multiply. This abundance of bacteria causes an infection.

While this ear infection is most common in children, people of any age are susceptible. Kidshealth warns that it is possible to get otitis externa from anything that damages the skin of the ear canal. Using cotton swabs, cotton balls, or anything that may scratch the ear canal can cause an infection.

Swimmer’s Ear vs. Ear Infection

There are two types of ear infections according to Norton Children’s:

  • Otitis media or middle ear infection
  • Otitis externa, also known as swimmer’s ear, or outer ear infection

Infections of the middle ear often occur in children who have a virus such as a cold or flu. Whereas swimmer’s ear is usually caused by bacteria found in water or damaged skin in the ear canal.

Symptoms

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear can vary from person to person and are dependent on how long the infection has been left untreated. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms can include:

  • Itching of the ear
  • Redness in the ear
  • Pain or discomfort that increases when touching or pulling the ear
  • Clear discharge from the ear

In serious cases, symptoms may escalate to:

  • Feeling “fullness” or blockage in the ear
  • Suppressed hearing or hearing loss
  • Bone and cartilage damage
  • Ear pain that radiates up the face and neck
  • Swelling of the outer ear
  • Severe pain
  • Fever

Will It Go Away by Itself?

Children’s Health explains that mild cases of otitis externa may resolve on their own. However, to ensure an infection does not persist, it is recommended that it be diagnosed by a healthcare professional. Once diagnosed, swimmer’s ear may be treated using prescribed swimmer’s ear drops or antibiotic drops.

Is There a Swimmer’s Ear Home Remedy?

Children’s Health states there are home remedies, but they are only safe if you are sure the eardrum is “intact.” A doctor will need to use an otoscope to examine the eardrum to determine this.

According to UpToDate, it is best to keep the ear as dry as possible until you see a doctor. Some remedies often found online mention the use of mixtures with alcohol. Using alcohol should be avoided since it can be very painful and irritating to the middle ear.

Healthline warns against using over-the-counter ear drops to treat this type of infection. Since this is a bacterial or fungal infection, drops with antibiotics or antifungal medication must be used. These medications are only available through a prescription.

How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear

UpToDate states that you can prevent the recurrence of this type of ear infection by doing the following:

  • Using ear plugs or swim caps in the water
  • Shaking water out of the ear after swimming
  • Using a blow dryer after being in the water (Use on low and at least 12 inches away from the ear)
  • Maintaining ear hygiene by cleaning the outside of the ear safely with over-the-counter ear mineral oil drops
  • Avoiding ear wax removal since wax is proven to help protect the ear canal (CDC)
  • Disinfecting ear plugs frequently

Treatment

Visiting a provider is a great first step to receiving treatment. According to John Hopkins Medicine, your doctor uses an otoscope to see clearly into the ear. They can determine what is causing discomfort or pain and if the eardrum is intact.

Your doctor may also take a sample of the ear drainage to perform a “drainage culture.” The culture will determine which bacteria may be causing the infection and which antibiotic drop should be used.

Treatment often includes:

  • Using ear drops that kill bacteria
  • Using ear drops that reduce swelling
  • Taking pain medication to offer ear pain relief

The Mayo Clinic mentions that the best ear drops to treat swimmer’s ear are often a combination of the following:

  • An acidic solution to help balance the ear’s “normal antibacterial environment”
  • A steroid to help reduce inflammation
  • An antibiotic to kill the bacteria causing the infection
  • An antifungal to kill any fungus causing the infection

Depending on the infection that you may have, a combination of these medications may need to be used.

How to Use Swimmer’s Ear Drops

Your provider may give you very specific instructions on how to use the ear drops prescribed to you. However, the Mayo Clinic offers some other recommendations such as:

  • Warming the medicated drops in your hands to make sure it is not too cold and harsh in the ear
  • Lying with your head to the side with the infected ear side up for a few minutes after application. This helps to make sure the medication penetrates the ear canal
  • Ask someone to help you administer the drops
  • Pull the ear up and back to allow for the medication to penetrate thoroughly

How Long Does Swimmer’s Ear Last Without Treatment?

The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center mentions that swimmer’s ear lasts 7 to 10 days, but this timeframe may vary. Some infections can last for weeks or even months if not treated.

To avoid prolonged ear discomfort, it is recommended to seek help from a healthcare professional.

We Can Help

Advanced Urgent Care & Occupational Medicine is a great option if you are needing fast and efficient care for ear infections. We have locations across Colorado’s Denver metro area.

All of our clinics offer extended hours and are open 7 days a week. Schedule a visit online or walk-in today! Click here to view all of our locations and to schedule.