Swimmer’s ear — medically known as otitis externa — is a painful inflammatory condition of the ear that occurs when water becomes trapped in the canals of the ear. As you might imagine, it commonly affects swimmers, but it can also occur following exposure to steamy or moist environments like baths, showers, hot tubs, and saunas.
Water stuck in the ears is, of course, uncomfortable, but how does it cause pain? When the water remains in the complex canals and tubes of the ear, it provides an opportunity for bacteria and fungus to grow; this leads to infection and the resulting inflammation.
There are a few factors, aside from regular contact with water or moist environments, that increase the risk of developing swimmer’s ear: over cleaning your ears with cotton swabs or irrigation to the point of reducing the protective layer of ear wax, injury to the ear canal (which can also happen due to overzealous cleaning), and dermatological conditions like seborreah or eczema. It also occurs more commonly in kids and teens, whose smaller ears are more likely to trap water.
The primary symptom of swimmer’s ear is pain in the ear, usually an ache or throbbing which gets worse when the ear is pulled or pressed upon; it can make chewing painful and may radiate to other areas like the jaw, neck, and face. There may also be a sense of fullness, and some people experience itching inside the ear before the pain begins. In some cases, the outer ear may become visibly red and swollen, or a discharge — sometimes clear, sometimes yellow and cloudy, similar to pus — may leak from the ear. In more severe cases, hearing can be affected, causing it to become muffled.
To ease the pain of swimmer’s ear, you need to reduce the inflammation and fight the infection. See a doctor, who can recommend or prescribe ear drops that fight bacteria and fungus; it’s best if these are administered by someone other than the patient themselves. They may also recommend flushing out the ear canal with a solution in a bulb syringe, but don’t do this without asking your doctor first. A heating pad set on low, as well as over-the-counter drops that target itching, can also be used at home to ease uncomfortable symptoms; for children, use a warm washcloth instead of a heating pad.