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Swimmer’s ear: what it is and how to treat it

If you're getting bad earache after swimming or racing it could be swimmer's ear. Here's some advice for treating and preventing it

Swimmer’s ear: what it is and how to treat it

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear (more correctly known as ‘otitis externa’) is caused by an inflammation of the outer ear canal – the tube between the skin surface of the external ear and the eardrum – and is usually caused by an infection, which may be bacterial or fungal.

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What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear?

Typical symptoms include redness and swelling of the skin of the ear canal and itchiness, especially in the early stages. As it progresses, the ear can become extremely sore and painful, and as the canal becomes more inflamed, hearing may also be affected.

What causes swimmer’s ear?

Anyone can develop otitis externa and it often follows localised trauma to the skin of the ear canal – for example, if the canal is scraped by a cotton-tipped bud in an attempt to remove earwax, or scratching the ear with fingernails in an attempt to relieve an ‘itch’.

However, constantly getting the ears wet can also damage the normal immune defences in the ear leading to infection (hence the term swimmer’s ear). This risk is further increased if the water contains significant levels of bacteria. Unfortunately, once you’ve suffered one episode of otitis externa, you’re more likely to suffer a subsequent episode, which means extra care is required.

How to prevent and treat swimmer’s ear

To help prevent future episodes, wear a tight-fitting cap that completely covers your ears whenever you swim (neoprene versions are ideal as they usually come with a chin strap for added coverage, warmth and security). Using ear plugs will also greatly reduce the change of water ingress through the ears, check out our pick of the best earplugs for the job below.

How do you treat swimmer’s ear?

After swimming, dry any water in your ears using a hairdryer on a low setting and follow up with an acidifying ear spray product (such as ‘Earcalm’), which temporarily enhances the ear canal’s natural acidity, inhibiting any bacterial growth.

Needless to say, you should never insert cotton wool buds or other objects into your ears. Wax works its way out naturally and cotton buds should only be used to lightly sweep around your outer ear (pinna).

Best ear plugs for swimming 

Wearing ear plugs when you swim can be an easy way to avoid developing swimmer’s ear. Take a look at our picks of the best swimming ear plugs you can buy in 2021.

Top image: Getty Images

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