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.
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.
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.
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) and plug the ears with cotton wool coated in Vaseline.
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).
(Image: Jonny Gawler)
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