What Causes Swimmer's Ear?

October 4, 2023

Swimmer's ear, which is also known as otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear canal. In its milder forms, swimmer's ear causes itching inside the ear canal and minimal discomfort when the earlobe is pulled. As the infection progresses, the pain will increase, and individuals may notice fluid draining from the ears as well as the excretion of pus. If not treated pain may become severe, the ear canal may become completely blocked, and a fever may develop.It is essential to understand what causes swimmer's ear and engage in preventative measures to avoid contracting the infection.

Moisture In The Ear

The most popular cause of swimmer's ear is moisture in the ear. The outer ear canal is a warm place, and when there is excess moisture in the ear, it provides the perfect breeding ground for bacteria to form and grow. While the name swimmer's ear infers the infection occurs by swimming, heavy sweating and extended exposure to humidity can also cause excess moisture in the ear canal. To prevent a buildup of excess moisture in the ear, individuals should make sure to thoroughly dry their ears after activities involving water, such as bathing or swimming.

Cotton swabs and other devices should not be inserted into the ear. Instead, ears should be dried with a soft towel after tipping the head to the side to allow any excess water to easily drain. Another method to dry the ear canal is using a blow dryer, held about twelve inches away from the ear and set on the lowest setting.

Skin Reactions

Certain body care products, such as lotions and hair sprays, and jewelry can cause skin reactions, which increase the risk of infection. Individuals with eczema, psoriasis, and seborrhea also have an increased risk of developing swimmer's ear due to the fact these conditions tend to cause itchy skin, and thus scratching, leaving those with eczema, psoriasis, and seborrhea vulnerable to cuts in the ear that bacteria can then invade. The best way to avoid contracting swimmer's ear due to skin reactions is to avoid getting chemicals from body care products into the ear, as well as avoid wearing jewelry that may cause an allergic reaction. For those with skin conditions that cause itching, it is best to avoid scratching if possible.

Wounds In The Ear Canal

A wound in the ear canal is another widespread cause for swimmer's ear. Open wounds leave the body susceptible to invading bacteria and can lead to infection. One of the key preventative methods for swimmer's ear for those with wounds in the ear canal is to avoid swimming and other water activities until the wound is completely healed. When taking a shower, individuals with ear canal wounds should take heed in carefully and thoroughly drying their ear with a soft cloth or towel. The keyword is careful, as one does not want to instigate further damage to the ear canal.

Cleaning Ear Canal Aggressively

Cleaning the ear canal aggressively can lead to cuts and other damage, increasing the risk of a bacterial infection. Using cotton swabs and other devices increase the risk for damage, as pushing the swab in too far can damage the eardrum and also cause earwax impaction, while the rough texture of the cotton can scratch the skin. Also, the ears do not need to be cleaned too often, as the buildup of wax helps to protect the eardrum from external contaminants. Experts state nothing should be inserted into the ear canal during cleaning and ears should only be cleaned if the wax is secreted into the outer ear. Nurses at a doctor's office can easily clean excess wax out of a patient's ear in a safe manner.

Swimming In Water With Elevated Bacteria

Pools and other maintained bodies of water are typically maintained and treated with chemicals to reduce the occurrence of bacteria that may be harmful to health. However, bodies of natural water, such as lakes and rivers, do not have such protection. As such, bacteria is allowed to grow freely and sometimes at elevated levels. Swimming in water with elevated bacteria causes swimmer's ear due to the fact the water contaminated with the bacteria flows into the outer ear canal and get trapped in the warm, moist environment, encouraging the growth of infection.

The best way to prevent swimmer's ear from elevated bacteria levels is to avoid swimming in non-maintained, non-chemically treated bodies of water. If an individual does swim in a lake or river, it is best to make sure to drain the ears of water often, by tipping the head to the side and drying the ears with a clean, soft towel.

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