Ear pain after swimming generally will represent one thing: swimmer’s ear. This is an infection that develops when bacteria enter the ear canal from the water and may emerge several days after swimming. This condition can affect a swimmer of any age, but is more common in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Swimmer’s ear requires antibiotic treatment. Consult a physician if you suspect an ear infection or get an earache after swimming.
Otitis externa or external otitis is the medical term for swimmer’s ear. The pain is due to pressure and possibly a lesion just inside the ear canal. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a form of common bacteria found in both soil and water that causes the infection. When water sits inside the canal, the number of bacteria present increase over time. This is one reason an earache may develop days after the swim. Symptoms of otitis externa include pain, itch inside the ear, inflammation outside the ear and a sense of fullness. There may be a reduction in hearing.
Treatment of swimmer’s ear includes antibiotic drops for 7 to 10 days. Apply a heating pad, set to low, to the outside of the ear to reduce pain. Your doctor may suggest an over-the-counter pain medication as well. It is essential that you do not scratch inside the ear canal. This may spread the infection.
Keep the ear dry if possible and avoid swimming until the infection clears. When you bathe, dip a cotton ball in petroleum jelly and place it over the opening of the canal. Do not force the cotton inside; the petroleum jelly will help it adhere to the skin.
Tip your head from side to side when you are out of the pool. This helps water drain from the canal. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends a hair dryer set low to dry the ear. Hold the dryer several inches away from your ear. The CDC also suggests a few drops of an over-the-counter ear product that contains alcohol. If you are prone to swimmer’s ear, consider ear plugs to keep the water out when you swim or bathe.
Swimmer’s ear and a middle ear infection are not the same thing, but may have similar symptoms. One way to tell if you do have otitis externa is to pull on your ear lobe. The pain will increase if you have swimmer’s ear.
It is essential to receive treatment for any ear infection. An infection can worsen and cause damage to the delicate structure of the ear. Serious infections may turn to meningitis or spread to the brain and become life-threatening. If you have chronic infections, ask your doctor what you can do to reduce exposure.