What is Swimmer's Ear?

My ear aches after I swim - what could that be from?

Woman With an Earache

My ear aches after I swim - what could that be from? Is it swimmer's ear, a common problem among swimmers - a slowly developing pain in the ear. It might be! It can start with an itchy ear feeling after a swim that, in time, intensifies to pain, particularly when the ear is touched or the ear is pulled. What can you do about the pain from swimmer's ear?

I remember as a young swimmer catching swimmer's ear every summer!

When we started swimming in different outside pools, I'd catch swimmer's ear in no time! I never knew what caused the problem or how to treat it. Nonetheless, it would drive me crazy, due to the itchiness, pain, and sometimes time away from the pool!

The CDC has released a report on "Estimated Burden of Acute Otitis Externa" - in other words, the cost of swimmer's ear. What does the CDC say about preventing swimmer's ear? "Suggested AOE prevention measures include reducing exposure of the ears to water (e.g., using ear plugs or swim caps and using alcohol-based ear-drying solutions)."

Note - If you have already developed symptoms of an ear infection, have a history of ear ache problems, perforated eardrums, ear tubes, or other possible complications, consult a physician. If in doubt - consult a physician.

What Causes Swimmer's Ear?

This could be caused by water trapped in the ear canal after a swim.

Your ear then becomes a great place for bacteria or fungus to grow, leading to an infection. The best cure? Prevention! Dry your ear - if you have difficulty, a product like the EarDryer Electric Dryer might help.

You can also use commercially available products to dry the ears, but you can also make your own.

Mix equal parts of rubbing alcohol and distilled white vinegar, and instill one to two drops in each ear after a swim. Assuming your physician has given you the OK to use ear drops, a drop or two in each ear after swimming will:

  • Help break the surface tension of the water in your ear so it doesn't cling within the canal.
  • Help dry the canal as the alcohol evaporates.
  • Promote a slightly acidic pH in your ear canal - bacteria and fungus don't grow well in that type of environment.

Don't use swabs or other objects in an attempt to dry the ear canal, since you could cause damage to your eardrum. You can use earplugsĀ to limit or prevent water from getting in your ears, but these are not always effective.

How Long After Getting Swimmer's Ear Can I Swim Again?

Physicians give mixed advice on when you can return to the pool after a bout of swimmer's ear. Some say that as long as you are treating it you don't need to miss any water time. Others state that a 6-10 day no-swimming period should be followed to ensure complete healing; if this is not done it will take longer for healing to occur. Ask your doctor for advice.

Have a pain in the ear? Take care of it - but better yet, stop it before it happens.

Swim On!

Updated by Dr. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS on January 28th, 2016.