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What is swimmer's ear?

Also referred to as external otitis, swimmer's ear is typically a bacterial infection affecting the skin of the outer ear canal.

Occurring in both acute and chronic forms, the primary cause of swimmer's ear is excessive water exposure. Water being trapped in the ear is a major risk factor for developing swimmer's ear.

Likewise, inserting cotton swabs into the ear canal on a regular basis as a means of ear cleaning at home may also lead to an outer ear infection.

Swimmer's ear causes

As mentioned above, swimmer's ear is usually bought on by water trapped in the ear canal developing into an infection. This can happen wherever water is present, whether you've been swimming or diving, taken a shower or bath, or if you just happen to be out in humid conditions.

At the same time, swimmer's ear can be caused by foreign objects entering the ear canal - such as cotton swabs - scratches in the ear canal skin that let bacteria enter and grow, or allergic reactions to items of jewellery or other irritants such as hairspray.

Swimmer's ear treatment

With a confirmed diagnosis of swimmer's ear, a doctor will recommend treatment options appropriate for your case. These include:
  • Ear drops: Because they contain medication that will not only help clear up infection but also reduce swelling, drops tend to be the go-to for medical professionals when it comes to treating swimmer’s ear.
  • Medical procedures: If symptoms are particularly severe, a doctor may need to clean out your ears or do some further exploration in the ear itself before recommending effective treatment.
  • At-home solutions: While you’re waiting for ear drops or the results of medical intervention to take effect, paracetamol or ibuprofen will help provide pain relief for swimmer's ear. You should also steer clear of earphones or hearing aids while you’re recovering and keep your ears dry. Also, during this time, take dry ear precautions such as wearing a shower cap while showering, avoiding swimming or anything else that may irritate the out ear.
Remember, if symptoms persist despite using any of the above remedies, talk to your GP about putting together a more robust treatment plan.

Swimmer's ear prevention

Preventing swimmer's ear means taking several steps to ensure water does not get trapped inside your ear. This may involve:
  • Wearing ear plugs while swimming
  • Not entering water with uncertain cleanliness, e.g. rivers or lakes
  • Tipping your head to the side after swimming to clear any excess water
  • Drying outside your ears after every bath, shower and swimming session
  • Never removing earwax with cotton buds, fingers, hairpins, etc.
By following these simple guidelines, you can be confident that you're doing everything you can to avoid developing swimmer’s ear and its debilitating effects.

Frequently asked questions

How long doest swimmer's ear last without treatment?

Despite swimmer's ear usually being able to clear up by itself without treatment over the course of several weeks, prompt medical intervention will stop any unpleasant symptoms and minimise the risk of any further complications developing, as well as speed up the healing process. Make sure you see your GP as soon as possible to discuss how best to treat your swimmer's ear. 

Can you swim with swimmer's ear?

You should avoid swimming whilst battling the symptoms of swimmer's ear. Going back in the pool before you're fully healed could make the problem even worse. Make sure to practice dry ear precautions while bathing as well during this period.