DEAR DOCTOR K: Swimming is my favorite form of exercise, and I do it several times a week. Lately I’ve been plagued by swimmer’s ear. Can you tell me how to prevent it so I don’t have to give up swimming?
DEAR READER: Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear canal that is usually caused by bacteria.
You’ve probably experienced itching and redness in and around the ear. You may have had yellow, green or even cheesy drainage from the ear. You may have felt pain when you touched your ear or when you chewed or talked. If the ear canal was very swollen, you may have had some trouble hearing.
Normally, the skin inside your ear canal – like all of your skin – is dry. When you swim, the skin inside your ear canal stays wet. Skin doesn’t like to be wet very long – just look at the skin that has been underneath a bandage, a damp environment, for several days. It gets white and puffy. If you could see it under a microscope, you’d also see that it has become a little “moth-eaten.”
To help prevent future cases of swimmer’s ear:
• If you get water in your ears, dry them thoroughly. First, turn your head to the side and pull the earlobe in different directions to help the water run out. Gently dry the opening to the ear canal. Then use a hair dryer briefly on its lowest setting held at arm’s length to dry the rest of the canal.
• Do not use cotton swabs to clean your ears. Swabs can cause trauma to ear canals, making them more susceptible to infection.
• Do not use earplugs unless they are designed specifically to keep water out.
• Eardrops after swimming can reduce your risk of getting swimmer’s ear. You can buy nonprescription eardrops at the drugstore. You can make a similar “home-grown” remedy by mixing equal parts white vinegar and rubbing alcohol. Use three to four drops in each ear after swimming.