Why is My Ear Plugged After Swimming?

Men's swimming.
Swimming allows water into your ears where it could become trapped. (Image: myrainjom01/iStock/Getty Images)

Experiencing a plugged ear after swimming leaves many newbie swimmers wondering exactly what they did wrong in the pool. Plugged or blocked ears occur fairly regularly among swimmers of all skill levels. Learn the facts about how this common swimming condition develops and what you can do to keep it from causing additional ear problems.

The Facts

In most cases, experiencing a plugged ear after swimming means that water is trapped in your ear. During diving and swimming, water naturally enters the ear canals as you dip or submerge your head and move through the water. Normally, this water drains from your ears once you raise your head from the water, but in some cases, the liquid remains in your ear canal, often trapped between chunks of earwax. The prolonged presence of the water in your ear generally produces a plugged-ear sensation.

Symptoms

The most common symptom that occurs when water accumulates in your ear is the distinctive feeling of a plugged or blocked ear. Your ear may feel congested and itchy, and you could experience an increase in pressure in your ears, such as the pressure that occurs when climbing a mountain or flying in an airplane. Swimmers with water-plugged ears often notice a slight loss of hearing, which generally occurs because the water cushions the eardrum, thus preventing the tympanic membrane from vibrating properly.

Treatment

If you notice a plugged sensation in your ear after swimming, encourage water drainage by tilting your head to the side and tugging gently on the lobe of the affected ear. In many cases, this action provides enough movement and shifting in the ear canal to allow the contained water to exit the ear. If this method doesn’t work effectively, create an ear-drying solution using equal amounts of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol, recommends Dr. Paul Barney, practicing physician and author of “The Doctor’s Guide to Natural Medicine.” Place two to three room-temperature drops of the vinegar-alcohol solution directly in the ear canal of the plugged ear.

Side Effects

Failing to get trapped water out of your ear promptly could increase your chances of suffering from an external ear infection, or otitis externa, which is commonly called swimmer’s ear. External ear infections frequently develop when bacteria present in swimming water get trapped in your ear and cause irritation and inflammation. Symptoms of swimmer’s ear include ear pain that gets more severe when you tug on the earlobe, itching or irritation in the ear canal, ear drainage and loss of hearing. Treatment generally involves the use of medicated eardrops in the affected ear to minimize inflammation and to kill off the microorganisms responsible for the infection.

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