People who swim regularly may experience a bout or two of swimmer’s ear during the summer months. Swimmer’s ear causes significant ear pain, especially when you yawn or swallow. The swelling that accompanies the infection can also interfere with hearing. Fortunately, prompt medical treatment can clear up the infection but you will need to spend some time out of the water until it goes away.
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Water and Swimmer's Ear
Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear canal, the small tubes that carry sound into your eardrums. Water from short baths and showers usually runs in and out of these tubes without any problems. Frequent swimming can wash away the waxy plug that protects your eardrums. Water stays in the ear and creates a wet environment conducive to bacterial growth. Lake water is a more common cause of swimmer’s ear than ocean or swimming pool water is, according to Summit Medical Group. Some lakes have elevated bacterial levels during hot weather.
Although you can find over-the-counter drops to prevent swimmer’s ear, there are no effective over-the-counter treatment options. Your doctor will usually prescribe eardrops that contain an antibiotic to fight the infection and steroids to alleviate swelling. Put these drops in your ears several times a day for 7 to 10 days. In severe cases, the doctor might also prescribe oral antibiotics.
Your ear will need to remain dry for the duration of the antibiotic treatment and often for several days afterward. Water in your ear can wash away the antibiotic drops and prolong the healing process. It might be 10 days or longer before you receive the doctor’s approval to swim again. Use a shower cap and earplugs to protect your ears during your bath or shower. Do not submerge your head in water, even with the earplugs. Earplugs cannot form a tight enough seal to keep out water.
After your swim, put a few drops of white vinegar or rubbing alcohol, or an equal mix of both, into your ears to clear out any remaining water. If infections occur frequently, wear earplugs when you swim. Use a towel to dry your ears thoroughly as soon as you get out of the water. Do not clean out your ears with cotton swabs – they can scratch your ear canal and increase your susceptibility to infection.