Although swimming can be great fun and excellent exercise, it
can also produce an irritating itch that may be caused by "swimmer's ear."
"Swimmer's ear" is just one name used to refer to an
infection of the outer ear canal. Such an infection may both inflame the ear and
cause it to itch. Sometimes swimmer's ear is caused by a fungus; but more
frequently, especially when the sufferer experiences pain, common bacteria is to
When water gets into the ear, it can carry with it bacterial
or fungal particles. Normally, water that gets into the ear will simply run back
out. This action allows the ear to dry and keeps the bacteria or fungi from
problem. Sometimes, however, water becomes trapped inside in the
ear canal. When this happens, the skin inside the ear becomes soggy, allowing
the bacteria or fungi to multiply and flourish. Under these circumstances,
break in the skin barrier of the ear canal can lead to the infection referred to
as swimmer's ear.
One does not even have to be a swimmer to suffer from such an
infection. Moisture from ordinary showering or even perspiration can sometimes
be the culprit.
Do you have these symptoms?
Swimmer's ear causes the ear to itch and feel blocked. The
ear canal becomes swollen and can sometimes swell shut. A runny, milky liquid
may start to drain out, and one may feel mild to very strong pain in the ear
canal. The ear may become very tender to the touch, particularly the tragus,
which is the triangular piece of cartilage that is in front of the ear canal.
With an advanced infection, glands in the neck may also become swollen.
Use eardrops to avoid infection
You are much less likely to get an infection if you keep your
ears dry. Indeed, swimmer's ear can often be easily prevented by simply using
antiseptic eardrops whenever one feels water trapped in the ears. These eardrops
an inexpensive, over-the-counter treatment sold under a number of
different trade names.
If your doctor gives you the OK, you may even be able to make
your own eardrops. Rubbing alcohol is an important ingredient, as it helps dry
out the ear and can help to kill the bacteria and fungi that may be inside the
canal. You will also probably want to add white vinegar (mixed with an equal
part of rubbing alcohol) to discourage any further bacterial or fungal growth.
You may obtain a dropper bottle for your homemade drops from your
One important caution, however: if you already have an ear
infection, you should never use eardrops (or even go swimming) without first
consulting with an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Similarly, people who have
surgery or have ever had a perforated or injured eardrum should
consult their ENT doctor before swimming or using any kind of eardrops. Instead
of using drops, a person with a perforated eardrum may be able to keep his
ear dry using an ordinary hair dryer. Other ways to keep ears dry obviously
include avoiding swimming and using earplugs or cotton balls coated with
petroleum jelly when showering. Everyone should be wary of cotton
however, because they can often push material deeper into the ear and irritate
the skin of the canal or make it bleed.
When to see the doctor
You should not treat even a minor ear infection yourself if
you have a weakened immune system, suffer from diabetes, or have ever had ear
surgery or a ruptured eardrum. Even if you do not fall into one of these
categories, you should seek medical attention if your symptoms last longer than
two or three days or if they appear to worsen.
You should also seek medical advice if you find that ear
infections are a frequently recurring problem. Other signs that your ear
infection requires medical attention: If you feel strong pain, your tragus hurts
when touched, or the glands in your neck are swollen.
If your problem is simply recurring itchiness of the ear, the
cause may not be swimmer's ear at all, but rather chronic dermatitis or skin
inflammation of the ear canal. One type of dermatitis, which is similar to
dandruff, produces abundant ear wax that is dry and flaky. Sometimes sufferers
are advised to reduce their intake of certain foods (such as chocolate, greasy
foods, and carbohydrates) which may aggravate this condition. Your doctor may
also prescribe a cortisone eardrop to use at bedtime if your ears itch.
In a few cases, itchy ears are caused by allergies which
require specific medical attention.
Hector N. Hernandez,
Assignment Accepted - New Patients Welcome
Boulevard Port Charlotte, Florida 33952
© 2004 AAO-HNS/AAO-HNSF
Please read our disclaimer. Any information provided on this Web site should not be considered medical advice or a substitute for a consultation with Dr. Hector N. Hernandez or other healthcare professional. If you have a medical problem, contact us for diagnosis and treatment.