1. Health
Send to a Friend via Email

Can I Prevent Swimmer's Ear?

By

Updated June 28, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Can I Prevent Swimmer's Ear?

Prevent Swimmer's Ear

Martin Harvey / Getty Images
Question: Can I Prevent Swimmer's Ear?

Swimmer's ear is an outer ear infection that develops when contaminated water sits in the ear for a prolonged period of time. It's a common infection that can be prevented. The following tips can help you prevent swimmer's ear.

Answer:

1. Keep Your Ears Clean and Dry, Especially After Swimming

Swimmer's ear is caused by germs that need water to survive, so if your ears are dry the germs cannot grow, (for more information, read: What Causes Swimmer's Ear?).

Thoroughly dry each ear canal after swimming or bathing. First, tip your head to the side until all of the water runs out of your ear, repeat on the other side. If necessary, you can carefully use a hair dryer on the coolest setting to completely dry the ear canal. Some doctors recommend using a few drops of rubbing alcohol in your ears after swimming or bathing to dry out the ear -- particularly if you have had ongoing problems with swimmer's ear. However, if you do this too often, and the skin inside your ear canal gets chapped, it can increase your chances of getting an infection.

2. Always Maintain Proper Ear Wax Hygiene

Ear wax (also called cerumen) plays an important role in preventing ear infections. Too much or too little ear wax can cause problems. Using improper cleaning methods such as ear candling can damage the ear canal and make it more prone to infection. Plus, ear wax repels water. For more information read:

3. Wear Ear Plugs While Swimming

Wearing ear plugs that keep water out of the ears while swimming or bathing can help prevent swimmer's ear. Pliable ear plugs can be purchased at some doctor's offices or at many stores. Just make sure you get ear plugs that fit properly and are intended to keep water out of the ear, (versus foam ear plugs sold to keep noise out or equalize ear pressure).

4. Always Take Good Care of Your Skin

The integrity of the skin inside of the ear canal plays a big role in preventing swimmer's ear. Cracked, dry or otherwise impaired skin is an infection waiting to happen. If you have conditions like eczema, allergies, or seborrhea you may be more likely to get swimmer's ear. Make sure these conditions are treated by a doctor. Even if you don't have these conditions it's possible to have dry, itchy ears with flaky skin. Some tips for keeping this under control include:

  • Avoid vigorous cleaning of the ear. If you have excessive ear wax, get your ears professionally cleaned by a doctor. Because you may have small abrasions after having your ears irrigated by a doctor, don't go swimming or get in a hot tub for a couple weeks.
  • Keep your ears dry.
  • Avoid scratching or cutting your ears.
  • Never insert a Q-tip or any other objects in your ears, which may damage the skin.
  • Keep hairspray or other irritating chemicals out of the ears by using ear plugs or cotton balls.
  • You may use a drop or two of vegetable oil or olive oil in your ears each day to help lubricate the ear canal and nourish dry skin.

5. Consider Using Ear Drops

There are a few ear drops you can use to help prevent swimmer's ear. But, if you suspect you may have a ruptured ear drum do not put anything in your ears and see a doctor as soon as possible. For more information read:

You should also avoid using ear drops if you have synthetic ear tubes, (also sometimes referred to as myringotomy or ventilation tubes), or if you have had anyrecent ear surgery. If you're unsure whether or not this applies to you or your child, the following article may help:

If you don't have any of the conditions listed above the following ear drops may be used:

  • Rubbing alcohol - evaporates water rapped inside the ear and has antimicrobial properties. Use a few drops in each ear after swimming or getting in a hot tub. Overuse can cause dry chapped skin.
  • White Vinegar - affects the pH inside of the ear canal. Many doctors recommend mixing a solution of half vinegar and half rubbing alcohol and using a few drops in each ear after swimming or bathing.
  • Olive Oil - a few drops a day lubricates dry itchy skin and repels water. It has also been claimed that a little bit of olive oil can help people with excessive ear wax naturally expel cerumen.
  • Hydrogen Peroxide - I mention hydrogen peroxide because I have seen it listed on many websites as a home remedy for swimmer's ear. While hydrogen peroxide does have the ability to kill a wide range of germs, studies have also shown that it kills your healthy tissue cells as well. For this reason, it has fallen out of favor with many health care professionals. When doctors do use hydrogen peroxide, they often recommend diluting it or rinsing it off with saline or sterile water about 30 seconds after application.

Ear drops are best applied with the help of another person. Lay down on your side so that your ear is facing up. Have them pull your ear slightly out and up to straighten out the ear canal, then put in a few drops. Continue to lay on your side for a few minutes after the drops go in to make sure they are absorbed.

It should be noted that any kind of ear blockage will make drops virtually useless. If you have excessive ear wax, drops will work best soon after your doctor has cleaned your ears out. However, avoid using drops immediately afterward as you may have small cuts or abrasions inside the ear canal. Do not try to remove ear wax yourself and don't use a Q-tip. You will most likely just pack the ear wax in and make it even harder for the drops to absorb.

Complete Treatment For Swimmer's Ear to Avoid Recurrence

The best way to avoid getting another case of swimmer's ear is to finish your entire course of antibiotics. Stopping antibiotics too soon can result in drug-resistant super bugs. Your infection might not just come back, but could be even harder to treat. For more information on treatments for swimmer's ear read:

Once you have finished treatment and been cleared by your doctor follow the tips listed above to prevent swimmer's ear in the future.

Sources:

American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Swimmer's Ear. Accessed: June 23, 2011 from http://www.entnet.org/HealthInformation/swimmersEar.cfm

ENT Nursing. Ear Care Advice. Accessed: June 23, 2011 from http://entnursing.com/earcareadvice.htm

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.