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How Can I Choose the Right Earplugs to Prevent Swimmer's Ear?

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Updated August 09, 2011

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How Can I Choose the Right Earplugs to Prevent Swimmer's Ear?

Earplugs Can Prevent Swimmer's Ear

Getty Images/ Martin Harvey
Question: How Can I Choose the Right Earplugs to Prevent Swimmer's Ear?
There is no universal set of earplugs to prevent swimmer's ear -- one brand might be perfect for a friend or swim partner, but a poor choice for you. With many options available, it's easy to become overwhelmed. Relax; this article will cover the different kinds of earplugs to help you find the right pair for your lifestyle and budget.
Answer:

Getting Earplugs From a Healthcare Professional

You can get earplugs from some doctors (particularly ear, nose and throat specialists), or audiologists. Here are the pros and cons of going this route:

Pros:

  • Earplugs are usually custom fitted to your ears.
  • They may be made of superior materials.
  • They are reusable and washable.
  • Your healthcare professional will ensure you get the right plugs for your needs.

Cons:

  • They cost more, and earplugs used for swimming can be easily lost.
  • They may not be as convenient to replace.
  • They often require adult assistance to place in the ear properly.

When my son got his first set of earplugs, we bought them from his ear, nose and throat specialist. Our doctor assured us that it was fine to use the ones from the grocery store, but we felt that since he was in swimming lessons, he should have the best available. He needed help putting them in but I didn't foresee that as a problem until he was invited to go swimming with a friend and I wasn't there to help him. He only used them 1-2 times before losing them. Because they were made of a clear, hard, plastic, they were pretty impossible to find in the water. In my opinion, age should be a consideration when deciding how much money to spend on ear plugs and what type of earplugs to use.

Silicone or "Putty Type" Earplugs

These types of earplugs are readily available at most stores and pharmacies. They look like little colored balls of putty and are often marketed specifically for children. Here are the pros:

  • Cheap (depending on where you live, they run about $3-4 for a box of six, sometimes even less)
  • They do not have to be custom fitted to your ear (one size fits all)
  • Bright colors make them easy to find in the water, but even if you don't find them, they're easy and cheap to replace
  • They are very easy for kids to put in their ears themselves

Cons:

  • Their consistency (literally like play dough or putty) allows things to get stuck to them, so they're not the most hygienic earplugs. While you can use them more than one time, I made my son throw his away after each use -- mostly because I would notice dog hair or other debris stuck in them, but also I'm sure ear wax and other debris stick to them after the first use. Obviously, they are not washable.
  • There are some concerns that all of the putty may not come out of the ear when the earplugs are removed.

Conical Earplugs

Conical earplugs are also available over-the-counter and are usually made out of silicone or rubber. It is difficult to describe their appearance. From the outside, they look a little like a pop-out turkey timer. When my son wore them, he joked that he looked like the cartoon character Shrek, as the end of the plugs stick out of your ears. The part that goes inside of the ear is cone shaped and accordion-style. When you push the plugs into your ears, the "accordion" part folds in on itself and creates suction, which holds the plugs in place.

Pros:

  • Inexpensive
  • Reusable and washable
  • Are sold in only one size, but due to the "accordion" feature, manufacturer claims they custom fit to your ears
  • Manufacturer also claims that these plugs block out noise in addition to water, thereby having duel functionality
  • Easily removed

Cons:

  • Noticeable and unattractive
  • Have a tendency to lose suction and fall out, even in the water

Ear Bands

While researching this article, I came across something called "ear bands." Apparently, "Little Grommets Ear Bands" are, what look like, headbands that cover the ear and fit tightly enough (they are adjustable) to hold your child's ear plugs in place. While the concept seems sound -- and as I've mentioned, losing ear plugs while swimming is common -- I have no experience with this product and cannot speak to its effectiveness.

Earplugs for Divers

If you are scuba diving, you may want to buy earplugs that not only keep water out but also help your ears to equalize pressure and prevent barotrauma. These are called vented earplugs. It is my understanding that the use of earplugs is controversial among divers with some doctors actually having the opinion that they can increase the risk of a ruptured ear drum. Therefore, I recommend speaking to your ENT doctor before deciding to use vented earplugs. There are a few different vented earplugs on the market with no scientific information that I know of vowing for one over the other. If you are a diver, instead of using earplugs, you may wish to read the following article for alternative ways to prevent swimmer's ear:

What Not to Buy

Foam earplugs are sold extensively over-the-counter. These earplugs are to be used expressly for blocking out noise and not water. They are used to prevent hearing loss, not swimmer's ear.

Sources:

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

DAN. Unplugged: Use of Ear Plugs in Scuba Divers. Accessed: August 6, 2011 from http://www.diversalertnetwork.org/medical/articles/article.asp?articleid=33

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