Swimming is great fun, swimmer’s ear however – not so much. A combination of humidity, perspiration and residual water from swimming can easily lead to an overgrowth of fungus or bacteria in the ear canals. It usually starts as an itchy sensation but can end up being very painful, even to light touch on the outside of the ear. Prescription ear drops are used to clear the infection, however sometimes special ear dressings and oral antibiotics are required.
It is best to try and avoid the infection in the first place. Do this by respecting your ears – don’t over-clean/scratch or try to prise out ear wax – the ear wax makes a nice waterproof layer that is useful in keeping the germs out, and any scratches give bacteria a foothold. Keep your ears as dry as possible – a well fitting swimming cap can help, or at least make sure you let the water run out of your ears afterwards (I have heard of avid swimmers using a hair dryer on a cool setting to help with this!). Sometimes acidifying ear drops can be useful – you can buy them over the counter at the pharmacy.
If you are unlucky enough to suffer from ear pains or discharge it is always best to let a GP check them – sometimes a perforation in the ear drum is present, which can make any treatment a little more complex. Inflamed ear canals can also result from a number of different diseases such as psoriasis and lupus, and so it is a good idea to get the diagnosis correct. In terms of returning to swimming following infection – unfortunately you will have to keep high and dry for at least 7 days.
Dr Cath Hester
These articles are not intended to replace a one-to-one relationship with a qualified health professional or as specific medical advice. They are intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from experience and research in the scientific literature. I encourage you to make your own health care decisions based upon a partnership with a qualified health care professional.