Avoiding swimmer’s ear this summer


Guest post by allearplugs.com

Summer holidays are the ideal opportunity to enjoy some time on the beach, lapping up the ocean waves and sea breeze. However, an idyllic summer break can be spoilt if you are unfortunate enough to be taken ill, with one of the most common afflictions being swimmer’s ear.

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear is an infection in the outer ear canal, and is often brought on by water trapped in the ear after swimming. This water creates a moist environment for bacterial growth and can lead to an infection, creating a range of unpleasant symptoms.

“Swimmer’s ear is more common in water with higher bacterial counts, which generally include lakes or other un-chlorinated bodies of water,” says Dr Green, a columnist for Parenting Magazine.

“If the ear is wet for a long period of time, the skin can become prune-like in the same way one’s fingers and toes become soft and wrinkled when they are in water for a long period of time. Bacteria can easily move into the soft skin,” added Dr Green.

Your outer canal has a range of natural defences against infections, including the production of the viable orange wax which people are usually so quick to remove; this repels water and prevents bacterial growth. The downward slope of your ear canal also helps to drain water outwards.

Swimmer’s ear occurs when the ear becomes overwhelmed with excess moisture, which can often be caused by humid holiday weather and too much time spent in the sea.

“We see a lot of swimmer’s ear, especially during the summer,” says John House, an ear specialist at the House Ear Institute. “But it’s not just swimmers who get otitis external. We also see people who simply get water in their ears while taking a shower.”

Breaks in your ear skin, from cuts or scratches, will allow bacteria to grow in your ear tissue; some hair products or jewellery can also promote infection.


Symptoms are usually mild at first, but will worsen if the infection spreads or isn’t treated. Mild symptoms include itching in your ear canal, redness inside your ear and drainage of a clear, odourless fluid.

As the symptoms get worse, pain will get more severe, with intense redness in the ear and a discharge of pus. You ear will begin to feel full and blocked from fluid and swelling, making it difficult to hear properly. Soon severe pain will spread to your face and neck, with swelling of your lymph nodes, and eventual fever:

“Unfortunately, I’ve experienced far too many bouts with swimmer’s ear,” says U.S. freestyle sprint champion swimmer, Jason Lezak. “It is painful and uncomfortable and can literally keep you out of the water for a few days.”

Swimmer’s ear can cause further complications when not treated, spreading infection to the base of your skull, brain, or cranial nerves. Diabetics and older adults are at higher risk for such dangerous complications.


Treatment for swimmer’s ear often includes prescription eardrops containing a corticosteroid, used to reduce itching and restore your ear’s normal antibacterial environment. A teaspoon of half water and half vinegar can also be gently poured into each ear right away, held in place with a cotton ball; this will help to release pressure and clear the ear prior to a doctor’s appointment.

The doctor will sometimes use a suction device or ear curette to clean the ear, removing discharge, earwax and flaky skin. If the ear doesn’t respond to eardrops, antibiotics will be prescribed in order to fight bacterial infection and reduce pain and swelling.

For particularly painful infections, you may need some over-the-counter pain relief, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Make sure you avoid swimming, scuba diving or flying until your infection clears; doing so will only make symptoms worse:

“I usually tell kids they can swim if the pain is decreased enough for an ear plug to fit comfortably,” says Dr. Marci Chasnow, a paediatrician at Box Hill Paediatrics. “Returning to swimming is not dangerous. It just delays resolution of the infection and may hurt.”


Swimmer’s ear can be prevented by taking care when cleaning your ears. Wipe them with a clean flannel, and avoid digging into your canal with fingers or foreign objects. When cleaning the ear, avoid using cotton swabs to remove wax; this wax protects against infection and packing it down will create the ideal environment for infection.

A set of good earplugs will also stop water from entering the ear, but still allow you to hear ambient external noises. Alpine Swimsafe offer an excellent value solution, featuring an innovative two-way filtering system which can be cut to size to create a tight seal:

“Earplugs are an excellent way of protecting your ears against infection,” says Earplugshop.com’s Rob Doole.

“You need something that will provide an effective seal against water, preventing bacteria from entering the ear canal and starting an infection. An ear infection on holiday can really ruin your trip, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Alpine also offer a child friendly version, Alpine Pluggies, which can be worn during your child’s swimming classes or beach time. For the professional swimmer, ProGuard Custom Swimmers Earplugs can be moulded to the exact contours of your ears and float in the event of becoming dislodged.

You should also avoid swimming in dirty water, as this is a hive for bacteria; make sure swimming pools are cleaned with chlorine regularly and that sea water isn’t polluted. Also dry your ears with a hairdryer after they get wet.

If you are particularly prone to swimmer’s ear you can keep them clean by using a drop of acetic acid solution before and after swimming; if you have itchy, flaky, scaly ears, or extensive earwax, have your ears cleaned periodically by an otolaryngologist.

For recurring conditions, adding probiotics and vitamins A, C and D to your diet will help to ward off infections; make sure you seek further advice from your doctor.

Swimmer’s ear is not usually a serious condition but does have the ability to spoil your holiday; make sure you take a few simple precautions and you can enjoy the ocean as much as you like.

This article was written by allearplugs.com, suppliers of earplug solutions for swimming and water sports.

Image courtesy of Razvan OrendoviciCC BY 2.0

About Author

Production engineer and certified swim coach. Full-time IT consultant, spare-time swimming aficionado. 2 sons, 2 daughters and a wife. President of the Faroe Islands Swimming Association. Likes to run :-)

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Earplug Review – Mack’s AquaBlock | Swimmer's Daily

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