When your ear is exposed to excess moisture, water can remain trapped in your ear canal. The skin inside becomes soggy, diluting the acidity that normally prevents infection.
What is it?
Water normally flows into and out of your ears without causing any problems. You can nearly always shower, bathe, swim, and walk in the rain without a problem — which is remarkable, considering how large and deep an opening your ear provides. You're protected by your ear's shape, which tips fluid out, and by its lining, which has acidic properties that protect against bacteria and fungi.
When your ear is exposed to excess moisture, however, water can remain trapped in your ear canal. The skin inside becomes soggy, diluting the acidity that normally prevents infection. A cut in the lining of the ear canal also can allow bacteria to penetrate your skin. When this happens, bacteria and fungi from contaminated water or from objects placed in your ear can grow and cause a condition called swimmer's ear (acute otitis externa, or external otitis).
Swimmer's ear is an infection of your outer ear and ear canal. It can be associated with a middle ear infection (otitis media) if the eardrum ruptures.
What causes it?
- Persistent moisture in your ear from swimming, bathing or living in a humid environment.
- Exposure to an infectious organism from swimming in polluted water.
- Skin breakage caused by scratching or rubbing your ear with a foreign object (such as a cotton swab or pencil), or attempting to clean earwax (cerumen) from your ear canal.
- Bacteria growth fostered by hair sprays or hair dyes in your ear.
What are the symptoms?
- Severe pain on moving your outer ear (pinna, or auricle) or pushing on the little “bump” (tragus) in front of your ear.
- Pain or discomfort in or around your ear. Usually only one ear is involved.
- Itching of your outer ear.
- Swelling in your ear or lymph nodes in your neck.
- Feeling of fullness or stuffiness in your ear.
- Pus draining from your ear.
Are there any natural therapies?
- Horseradish, garlic and vitamin C to help relieve symptoms of mild respiratory tract infections.
- Echinacea can help to reduce the symptoms of infections of the upper respiratory tract.
Supplementing can help to reduce the severity of Swimmer's ear, however acute ear infections do require professional treatment.
What else can I do?
- Keep your ears dry.
- Swim wisely.
- Use earplugs.
- Practice self-care.
- Avoid putting foreign objects in your ear.
- Protect your ears.
- Use caution after ear infection or surgery. If you already have an ear infection or have recently had ear surgery, talk to your doctor before you swim.
Did you know?
Swimmer's ear is common in children and in young adults. You may be at increased risk of infection if a skin condition, such as eczema, causes you to scratch your ears excessively. Earwax buildup or blockage also may increase your risk by trapping water in your ear and increasing the likelihood that you'll cut the skin while cleaning your ear.