What Causes Swimmer’s Ear?

A senior man on a surfboard at risk for swimmer's ear.

Imagine you’re in an old time noir movie and you play a detective. You’re attempting to track down a killer (and you’re being pretty hard-boiled about it, whatever that means) and you have one clue: the suspect suffers from Swimmer’s Ear.

You’re poring over newspaper articles and old school yearbooks in a long montage set to dramatic music. You’re wondering if any of your main suspects may have been a member of the school swim team. Or if they currently have a membership at the local pool.

And of course, just as these types of old movies go, you discover only one who turns out to be the killer. And the case is closed! There will likely also be some action and heavy dialog at some point. And you have Swimmer’s Ear to thank for everything.

In real life, sadly, it doesn’t really work that way. The investigation itself was flawed. In real life, Swimmer’s Ear doesn’t only effect swimmers.

What is Swimmer’s Ear?

The symptoms resulting from Swimmer’s Ear are really not fun. The symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear usually include itching inside of your ear canal, pain when you touch your ears, and sometimes a pussy discharge. It’s… not fun.

Although Swimmer’s Ear isn’t a life threatening situation, it can still have a considerable impact on your quality of life. It will make you miserable. Hearing loss can even result during the infection.

Is there a difference between an ear infection and Swimmer’s Ear? Normally, it’s the location. While an ear infection normally impacts the inner ear, Swimmer’s Ear impacts the outer ear canal. Usually, this means that the outer ear is infected by either a fungus or bacteria (if you’ve been watching The Last of Us, there’s no need to be concerned about this specific fungus turning you into a zombie).

Causes of Swimmer’s Ear

In spite of its name, Swimmer’s Ear isn’t caused by, well, swimming (mostly). Rather, Swimmer’s Ear is caused by an infection, typically a bacteria or a fungus.

But our movie detective wasn’t entirely wrong, Swimmer’s Ear isn’t always completely unrelated to swimming. It shouldn’t be shocking that regular exposure to water can increase your risk of Swimmer’s Ear since bacteria and fungi like warm moist environments.

But with regards to Swimmer’s Ear, water isn’t the only risk. Here are some other ways you can develop this outer ear infection:

  • Sustaining an injury to your ear canal. If you get a little too aggressive while cleaning your ear with a cotton swab or your fingernail this can occur. Cuts or scratches can get infected and lead to Swimmer’s Ear.
  • Excess ear wax. Normally, earwax can help keep your ears clean. But if the ears produce an over-abundance of earwax it can aggravate the skin and become an ideal place for bacteria to live.
  • Devices designed for your ear. This might include earplugs, hearing aids, or other devices that we advise you to use. Your risk of getting Swimmer’s Ear will be greater if you use these devices constantly or improperly. It’s essential to wear your hearing aids and use hearing protection and there are some ways to handle the risks.)
  • Weakened immune systems. Fungal infections can develop if your immune system isn’t at peak capacity.
  • Medical history. If you have a history of skin conditions or topical allergies, it may make you more likely to develop Swimmer’s Ear in the future.

Naturally, there’s no guarantee that you will or won’t develop Swimmer’s Ear even with these risk factors. You’re not necessarily going to get Swimmer’s Ear simply because you go into the water. But prolonged exposure to wetness will increase your chances of developing Swimmer’s Ear.

How can I prevent Swimmer’s Ear?

Swimmer’s Ear can have several causes and so you can reduce your risk by taking any one or more of several preventative measures.

  • Keep your ears dry: After you take a shower or go for a swim or have a bath, use a towel to gently dry your ears. It’s not necessary to go hard. You should also tilt your head and allow all the water to drain out. Bacteria and fungi love moisture so keeping your ears dry will give them less chance to flourish.
  • Don’t utilize implements to clean out your ears: If something is bigger than your finger, don’t put it in your ear. So avoid putting any sort of implement, like cotton swabs, or bobby pins, inside of your ears. Your ears will thank you!
  • Keep your hearing aids or earplugs clean: The spread of germs including bacteria will be decreased if you keep them clean.
  • Wear earplugs if you swim frequently: This can help prevent water from going into your ears in the first place.
  • Ask your provider about specially made drying agents: These basically consist of ear drops that will help dry your ears which you can purchase over-the-counter. But it’s not a bad idea to speak with your doctor before you start putting anything in your ears.
  • You’ll want to at least keep an eye out for symptoms. Don’t wait until your Swimmer’s Ear is unbearable before you talk to your doctor.

    Swimmer’s Ear FAQ

    • Will Swimmer’s Ear clear up by itself? Possibly. A few weeks may be enough to clear up mild cases. But until they are correctly treated, more significant cases will probably linger.
    • What are the treatments for Swimmer’s Ear? Antibiotic ear drops are generally the go-to treatment. Or they may be antifungal ear drops when you’re addressing a fungal infection.
    • Does ear pain after taking a swim always mean Swimmer’s Ear? Not necessarily, although it’s a good idea to check with your doctor either way.

    Solve the case of your Swimmer’s Ear

    Your body is most likely informing you that you have an ear infection if your ears are itchy or painful. Even if you aren’t a swimmer, you can still develop Swimmer’s Ear. And you don’t have to be a hard-boiled detective to figure out that the next step is talking to a medical professional.

    So if you experience those symptoms, schedule an appointment and get the care you need when you need it.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.

Questions? Talk To Us.