Ear Health: Swimmers Ear

Family Health Diary

Sunny summer days have meant lots of swimming and therefore more ‘swimmers ear’. We have also seen more people coming into the pharmacy asking for help with eczema or itching inside the ears. Sometimes this could be related to the chlorine in swimming pools; sometimes this is just something people have all year round.

Swimmers ear (or eczema in the ear) affects the ear canal which runs from your ear drum to the outside of your head. It is more common for adults. This is not the same as the middle ear infections that some children can be prone to. Middle-ear infections are in the ‘middle ear’ which is on the other side of the ear drum and so is inside the head.

Swimmer’s ear is often from swimming or having wet ears (e.g. washing your hair). Sometimes the shape of the inside of your ear might make you more prone to this. With the ear staying wet for some time the bacteria grow in the ear and cause an infection. The infection causes inflammation, itchiness and sometimes mild pain.

Ear irritation can also be caused by pushing a cotton bud or your finger nail into the ear. So even though this isn’t from swimming a person ends up with the same symptoms. The cotton bud or finger nail damages the thin lining that is inside of the ear canal. This allows bugs (bacteria) to grow in the lining of your ear. The old saying about not putting anything smaller than your elbow into your ear is true. Do not put cotton buds or other items into the ear. The inside of your ear canal is very sensitive and easily damaged. Of course people who use hearing aids need to put those into the ear, and this can sometimes irritate the inside of the ear canal and cause ‘swimmer’s ears’

These ear infections are often mild to start with. If you do not treat the infection it can get worse. Mild symptoms include inching and inflammation (redness) inside the ear canal and mild discomfort. Sometimes there is a clear discharge from the ear.

The best way to treat swimmers ear is to keep the ear dry. This might mean avoiding swimming and hair washing until it has settled down and wearing a shower cap in the shower. There are drops that you can purchase from the pharmacy that will dry the inside of the ear and prevent and treat the infection. The drops mix with any remaining water and then evaporate so as to dry the ear. People who are prone to swimmer’s ear should keep these in their swimming bag and use the drops every time after swimming. Some people use them after hair washing as well.

Eczema inside the ear is a bit different in that it is very very itchy and is often all year round. Remember if you don’t treat swimmers ear though it too can become very itchy.

With very itchy ears; people scratch their ear canals with anything available (often their longest finger nail). This can lead to a swimmer’s ear type infection. The treatment is different though because the main thing is to stop the itchiness. You can buy an antifungal cream from the pharmacy that also has some hydrocortisone. This is anti-itch, anti-inflammatory as well getting rid of a fungal infection that can develop in the ear.

For swimmer’s ear (or eczema in the ear) you can go to the doctor who will look into the ear and be certain what is wrong. You can get a prescription from the doctor for drops for the ear. Ear drop prescriptions are not always fully funded so you may have to pay for them at the pharmacy. Your other option is to go straight to the pharmacy and ask to speak to the pharmacist. Ask them if there is anything you can get without a prescription that will help your particular symptoms. If you seem to have a bad infection in your ear the pharmacist might ask you to visit a doctor and get antibiotics (as well as ear drops).

Remember if you don’t treat ear infections quickly it can lead to loss of hearing.


Written by: Linda Caddick

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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