June 2, 2016

Here’s what you need to know to prevent and to treat this malady.

’Tis the season for splashing around in our favorite swimming holes and community pools, but all that fun can turn into a pain in the ear. Swimmer’s ear (acute external otitis or otitis externa) is an infection in the outer ear canal.

With the help of Edward Shackelford, M.D., of Vanderbilt’s My Health Walk-in Clinics, we answer your questions about this painful, annoying condition. Whether you swim for exercise or you take your kids to the pool to cool off, here’s what you need to know:


Are some people more prone to swimmer’s ear than others?

Yes, Shackelford says. Frequent swimmers, people with compromised immune systems, and people who have dermatological conditions affecting the ear are more prone to infection.


What steps can I take to prevent swimmer’s ear?

“People active in water sports can use earplugs or, after swimming, carefully try to get the water out of their ears by tilting their head,” Shackelford says. “For people with significant recurrent issues, a blow-dryer could be used with caution to dry the canal.” Keep the dryer at a distance and use it on the lowest setting. Over-the-counter drops can help prevent infection.

Trying to clean the ears with a Q-tip or finger can promote infection. Shackelford reminds patients that the ears are self-cleaning. Additionally, he cautions against sleeping with earbuds or hearing aids in the ears and encourages people to clean their devices regularly.


How do I know if I have swimmer’s ear?

“Symptoms such as pain when pulling on the ear, drainage from the ear and difficulty hearing might indicate swimmer’s ear,” Shackelford says.


When should I see a doctor?

“Our general policy is to advise anyone with ear pain to be evaluated to confirm the diagnosis,” Shackelford says. Anyone who has a fever or symptoms involving more than just the ear should be seen immediately.


What are the treatments for swimmer’s ear?

A physician will clean the ear canal if there is a significant wax buildup and provide treatment with a combination of topical acidifying agents, antibiotics, steroids and antiseptics — depending on the severity of the infection. Anyone not responding to treatment within 48 to 72 hours should get rechecked. However, if symptoms worsen, return to the doctor right away.

Struggling with swimmer’s ear? Find a Vanderbilt Walk-In Clinic near you.