Did you know...
"Swimmer's ear" is one of a number of names for infection of the outer ear canal.
What Is "Swimmer's Ear"?
Sometimes, swimmer's ear or "jungle ear" (as is was called by soldiers fighting in the South Pacific) is caused by a fungus. But more often, especially in painful cases, it is caused by one of nature's common bacteria.
When water gets into your ear, it may bring with it bacterial or fungal particles. Usually the water runs back out; the ear dries out; and the bacteria and fungi don't cause any problems. But sometimes the water remains trapped in the ear canal, and the skin gets soggy. Then the bacteria and fungi grow, flourish, and can infect the outer ear.
First, the ear feels blocked and may itch. Soon the ear canal becomes swollen, sometimes swells shut, starts draining a runny milky liquid, and becomes very painful. It is also very tender to touch, escpecially on the tragus (the triangular piece of cartilage in front of the ear canal). When the infection gets to this stage, a doctor's treatment is needed. This is also true if glands in the neck become swollen.
How Do I Avoid It?
The entire sequence of events can be easily prevented if you use antiseptic eardrops whenever you feel that water is trapped in your ears. Such eardrops are inexpensive and are sold without prescription under various trade names such as Aqua Ear, Ear Magic, Swim Ear, etc.
If your ear feels moist or blocked after swimming, hairwashing, or showering, put your head over with that ear up, pull the ear upward and backward to instill eardrops into it. Wiggle your ear to get the drops all the way down in the ear canal, and then turn your head to let them drain out.
CAUTION: If you already have an ear infection, or if you have ever had a perforated or otherwise injured eardrum, or if you have had ear surgery, you should consult and ear, nose, and throat specialist before you go swimming and before you use any type of ear drops. If you do not know if you have ever had a perforated, punctured, ruptured or otherwise injured eardrum, you should consult your ear doctor.
if your ENT doctor says it is safe, you may be able to make up your own ear drops to use after swimming. Many doctors recommend rubbing alcohol as an important ingredient. It absorbs the water, helps dry out the ear, and may even kill the bacteria and fungi that cause swimmer's ear. Another effective ingredient with the alcohol is boric acid powder (2tsp/pint) or white vinegar (mixed 50/50 with alcohol). A weak acid environment discourages the growth of bacteria and fungi. Your pharmacist can supply you with a dropper bottle for your acid alcohol ear drops, so you can keep them in your beach bag. If you have a hole (perforated) in your eardrum or tubes in place, you do not want to use drops. If your is a frequent recurring problem, your doctor may recomment placing oily (or lanolin) ear drops in your ear before swimming to protect them from the effects of the water.
What Is "Swimmer's Ear"?
An itchy ear is a maddening symptom. Sometimes it comes from a fungus (especially in acute cases), but more often it is a chronic dermatitis (skin inflammation) of the ear canal. One type is seborrheic dermatitis, a condition similar to dandruff in the scalp; the was is dry, flaky, and abundant. Some patients with this problem will do well to decrease their intake of foods that aggravate it, such as greasy foods, carbohydrates (sugars and starches), and chocolate. Doctors often prescribe a cortisone eardrop to use at bedtime whenever the ears itch. There is no long-term cure, but it can be kept under control. Itchy ears in a few patients are caused by allergies that require specific medical treatment.