Medical Matters

By Dr Jeremy Beckett

How to avoid ear infections from swimming

As the warmer weather starts to kick in, no doubt many of us will be getting back into the water. One of the most common complaints we see in summer is known as ‘Swimmer’s Ear’, or Otitis Externa.

otitis externa ear

This problem is an infection of the ear canal, and it can be extremely painful. It usually originates from having water or moisture in the ear, which makes the lining of the canal swollen and interferes with the normal wax barrier that protects against infection. This can allow fungal and bacterial infections to penetrate the skin of the canal.

The symptoms are usually as follows:

Common

  • Ear ache, made worse by pulling the ear lobe
  • Partial hearing loss on the affected side (temporary)
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear, like it is blocked
  • White or yellow discharge (fluid) from the ear

Less common

  • Swelling of the jaw or face
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Obvious enlargement of neck lymph nodes (glands)

The treatment involves several different aspects.

Drying the ear canal

Keeping the ear dry is the best prevention and treatment. This can sometimes be achieved by twisting up a tissue into a ‘spear’ and gently placing into the ear canal.

Aural toilet

This unfamiliar term simply means cleaning the muck and debris out of the ear canal so that it can dry properly. It is best to get your local doctor or nurse to do this (very gently), and we recommend avoiding syringing or the use of water in this instance (it can make things worse).

Ear drops

There are several types of ear drops that can be used. The simplest is a drying agent that contains vinegar, but this is best used as a preventative rather than a cure. It can be very painful to put vinegar (acid) into an inflamed ear! The other drops are prescription items only, containing antibiotics, antifungal agents, and corticosteroids (to reduce inflammation and pain). Sometimes your doctor or nurse will swab the discharge from the ear to try to identify which organism is causing the infection: this can help to guide treatment.

Ear wicks

Sometimes Otitis Externa becomes so severe that the ear canal closes over completely due to swelling. This means that most of the above treatments will be unsuccessful. It may be possible for your doctor to insert a wick (a strip of gauze or similar) past the swelling so that the fluid can seep out, or drops can penetrate in.

Antibiotics

In severe cases it may be necessary to treat with antibiotics, either orally or intravenously.

Prevention is the key!

Try to keep your ear dry after swimming and showers. Have your doctor or nurse check your ear for wax build-up, as this can allow water to get trapped behind the wax. If you do get an ear ache or some discharge from your ear, be sure to seek help early before the canal becomes too swollen. The problem is usually easy to treat if caught early.

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