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Swimmer’s Ear – Not Just For Swimmers

Expert Chats

Swimmer’s ear may be a common summer diagnosis, but many people do not know what it truly entails. Focus sat down with ear surgeon Dr. Felipe Santos to get the inside scoop on this ear condition.

It’s summertime, which means many kids and adults are enjoying the outdoors. For those who spend a lot of time in pools or other bodies of water, swimmer’s ear might sound quite familiar.

Swimmer’s ear occurs when the external ear canal becomes inflamed due to an infection, allergies or irritation. It’s estimated that 10 percent of people will develop swimmer’s ear at least once in their lifetime.

Although it’s a fairly common diagnosis, there’s a lot about the condition that people do not know. For instance, swimmer’s ear is only a nick name, the condition has little to do with swimming.

To learn more, Focus sat down with Felipe Santos, MD, an ear surgeon at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. Dr. Santos shared four facts about the disease, including how to keep your ears safe during the summer.

  1. Swimmer’s ear is just a nick name.

Known as otitis externa, swimmer’s ear got its nick name due to water exposure being the source of inflammation for a high number of patients.

  1. Swimmer’s ear is not exclusive to swimmers.

Otitis externa may be associated with swimmers and water, but non-swimmers can also become infected. If the skin of the ear canal is irritated, bacteria and fungus can cause infection and inflammation.

“Otitis externa is typically caused by a break down in the skin, allowing bacteria or fungus to infect the ear canal,” said Dr. Santos. “Just like water, something like a finger, Q-tip or bobby pin could be the culprit.”

  1. Swimmer’s ear typically doesn’t resolve on its own.

Since the inflammation is most often caused by an infection, otitis externa generally requires medical attention.

Dr. Santos recommends seeing your primary care physician if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms: ear pain, ear drainage, redness in the outer ear, a feeling of fullness in the ear, hearing loss, itchiness or tenderness.

Those with a severe infection or in need of an advanced cleaning may be referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist.

  1. Swimmer’s ear can be avoided with proper ear care.

A manipulation of the ear triggers the infection or irritation, so try not to clean your ear canal.

“Following common rules such as avoiding the placement of objects like Q-tips in the ear can make all the difference,” said Dr. Santos.

If your ears frequently trap water, Dr. Santos suggests wearing earplugs and/or swim caps for protection. Using over-the-counter drops of a dilute solution of acetic acid or alcohol in the ears after swimming is also recommended for those prone to swimmer’s ear.

If you’ve had an ear infection recently, make sure to clean earplugs, ear buds and anything else you place in/on your ears before their next use.

“The bottom line is that swimmer’s ear is often preventable,” said Dr. Santos. “I encourage everyone to take the appropriate steps to help keep their ears healthy.”

About Our Expert

Dr. Felipe Santos is an ear surgeon who specializes in hearing loss, cochlear implants, otosclerosis, vestibular schwannomas, skull base tumors, facial paralysis and cholesteatomas. He sees adult and pediatric patients at Mass. Eye and Ear, Main Campus.

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