Suddenly, it feels like there’s a bubble in your ear, and every sound is muffled. Your ear is starting to itch, and water is coming out. As the pain sets in, you realize, you have swimmers’ ear (otitis externa). An infection brewing in the outer ear or ear canal, which runs from your eardrum to the outside of your head.
Swimmer’s ear is often brought on by water that remains in your ear after swimming, creating a moist environment for bacteria to grow. Because the ear canal is dark and warm, it can easily get infected with bacteria and fungus. In some serious cases, swimmer’s ear can spread to other areas of the ear. This includes the skull bone. While it is common in children and young adults, the infection can become severe in older people and people who have diabetes. The good news: It is usually treatable with topical antibiotics.
Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear Include:
- Pain and/or itching in the affected ear. The pain gets worse when you chew or move your ear.
- A plugged-up feeling in the affected ear
- Some hearing loss
- Clear or pus-like drainage
- Swelling inside the ear and painful to the touch
If you have any of the symptoms above, it’s time to call a physician and seek medical care. They can remove the pus and drain your ear, making sure that the infection isn’t coming from or causing another problem. In order for the antibiotic drops to reach the site of infection, a physician may need to remove debris from the ear canal. Follow your physicians advise and do not put anything in your ears other than the prescribed antibiotic drops.
It is very important to call your physician again if symptoms do not clear up with treatment after 7 days, or if you have new symptoms, such as fever, pain, or redness on the skin around the ear.
Prevention Tips Before You Swim
If you are one of the millions that think twice about jumping into the pool because you’re worried about swimmer’s ear, take heart. Most cases of the painful ear infection can be prevented. To protect yourself before and after you swim, keep your ears dry. Here are a few preventative tips to help before you take a dive.
- Earwax. Leave it in there. Don’t remove earwax on your own. If you think it is affecting your hearing, see your doctor.
- Earplugs. If you can keep water out of your ear canal, you’re much less likely to have a problem. Buy earplugs designed for swimming. A bathing cap that covers your ears can help, too.
- Try not to swim in lakes, ponds, or rivers with lots of bacteria. Check for posted signs about bacteria levels and whether it’s safe to swim. High bacteria levels in the water can mean more bacteria in your ears.
- Make sure pools and spas are clean. Dirty water is more likely to have bacteria. If you don’t know if a pool or spa is clean, it’s best to not get in.
This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. If you are displaying very serious signs such as an inability to wake up, seizures, or repeated vomiting, it is a time-sensitive medical emergency and you should seek immediate care and proceed to the emergency room immediately.