Healthy Living: Swimmer’s Ear

By- Dr. Joan Marie Pellegrini It is that time of year and the lakes are warming up. As the temperatures rise, we will be spending more time in the water. Because of this, a few of us will get Swimmer’s Ear. This is an infection of the external ear canal that causes pain, itching, a wet and full feeling in ear, pain with jaw movement, drainage from the ear canal, and sometimes neck soreness (from swollen nodes). The CDC estimates that more than half the cases in this country are in adults. So this is not just a problem for children. The most important risk for swimmer’s ear is the duration of exposure of the canal to water that is contaminated. The water from lakes, oceans, and pools all carry risk. I would have thought that a chlorinated pool would be safer. However, this is not true. The chlorine in a pool causes irritation in the canal by accelerating keratin degradation (keratin is found in the protective layer of cells lining the canal) and actually increases the risk of swimmer’s ear (Medscape). So, what can you do to prevent this? First, I should mention some things that you should not do. Don’t try to clear the ear canal before swimming. The ear canal has a natural mechanism of moving wax and dead cells from the inside to the outside. Attempted cleaning can irritate the canal and make infection more likely. Never insert anything into the ear canal. Lots of swimming can wash away the protective wax coating in the canal. In order to protect the skin in the canal, you may use a mixture of vinegar and isopropyl alcohol. Place 2-3 drops in ear canal before and after swimming. If you are particularly prone to this type of infection you may try using ear plugs when swimming. Specialized petroleum coated plugs are available. However, you must avoid getting an accumulation of petroleum in the canal which could block the water that gets in from draining back out. When you get out of the water, try emptying any water in the canal by tilting the head to each side. Pulling on the ear lobe can help empty the water. Also you may use a hair dryer on the lowest setting. Once you have the infection, there are drops that can be prescribed to treat the infection. By no means should you try to clean out the ear canal with anything (including cotton-tipped swabs). If you are on vacation and will need to fly home, you should strongly consider seeking medical attention promptly so that the infection can be optimally treated. This is because the pressure changes in the plane can cause severe pain and some complications. An infection that is left untreated can cause the infection to spread to the inner ear or bone.A useful website: