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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. Here are a few of the best…

Nike Ear Plugs 

This slick-looking pair of ear plugs are made from soft rubber, which should mould to the ear. They have a double-flange design, which aims to provide a faultless water-tight seal when in use.

Speedo Ergo Swimming Ear Plugs 

Named after their ergonomic design, these Speedo plugs aim to provide a secure yet comfortable fit and are made from soft TPR material. The long stem should help to avoid any movement and the plug design should fit the outerpart of the ear seamlessly.

Zoggs Aqua Ear Plugs 

These hypo-allergenic, moulded silicone ear plugs from Zoggs aim to provide a secure and comfortable fit, while the materials used should avoid any adverse reactions if you have sensitive skin or ears. Claiming to be ‘highly effective at blocking out water’, the ergonomic shape of these Zoggs plugs should make them snug and easy to use.

Speedo Biofuse Aquatic Earplug

These svelte, slim-look ear plugs from Speedo come with their own carry case and have a multiple-flange design along the stem, which should ensure a secure and water-tight fit.

Top image: Getty Images

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