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Swimmer's ear can lead to temporary hearing loss

Contributed by | Thursday, June 25th, 2015

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Summer is here and it’s time for fun in the sun. For many of us, summer fun includes splashing in the nearest body of water. But what happens when our desire to cool off in the nearest lake, river or pool leads to a painful ear infection or even temporary hearing loss? It happens more often than you might think.

Swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, is a common yet painful affliction affecting millions of people every year. The numbers rise in the summer, with 44 percent of cases occurring between June and August. Though mostly associated with children, as they are more susceptible due to narrower ear canals, swimmer’s ear can actually affect people of any age. According to a study conducted from 2007 to 2011 at Wellington Hospital in New Zealand, the results of which were released in October 2014, swimmer’s ear occurs at a rate of four per 1000 people yearly in the U.S. Although it is not age specific, it occurs five times more often in swimmers than in the general population.

swimmers ear
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Even the nickname “swimmer’s ear” is somewhat of a misnomer; although common to swimmers you don’t have to be a swimmer to get it. Sometimes just living in a hot and humid climate is enough for moisture to build up and become trapped.

There are four different types of ear infections, and swimmer’s ear is one of them. It is a bit different than what we typically think of as an ear infection, in that it involves the outer ear rather than the middle ear (the space behind the eardrum). Any ear infection can cause hearing loss, and swimmer’s ear is no different. The swelling and excess fluid blocks or muffles sound as it passes through the ear canal on the way to the inner ear. The good news is that with swimmer’s ear, hearing should return to normal after the infection is cleared up in about a week.

So what exactly is swimmer's ear? Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the skin of the ear canal. Yes, it is technically just a skin infection, but it can be excruciatingly painful. The infection enters the ear through bacteria found in water. All water contains bacteria, and the levels are even higher in non-treated water found in lakes, rivers and oceans. When this bacteria-laden water doesn’t drain properly from the ear canal it becomes trapped. In the warm, moist environment of the ear canal, the bacteria multiply and cause an infection. The infection causes swelling and inflammation; not a good turn of events in a tight space such as an ear canal. The ear canal simply cannot accommodate the swelling and the resulting pain can be excruciating.

"Bacteria proliferate in a warm, moist environment," said Bridget Redlich, infection preventionist at Lake Charles Memorial Health System in Louisiana. “Water that stays in the ear after swimming or even showering, if you don't get all of the moisture out and get it good and dry, then it can lead to swimmer's ear."

Any trauma to the skin of the ear canal can also provide an entry point for the bacteria. People who use cotton swabs to clean their ears, people who scratch their ears a lot or those with eczema or psoriasis are at greater risk for swimmer’s ear due to the skin abrasions.

A full or clogged feeling in the ear that may cause sound to be muffled is often the first telltale sign of swimmer’s ear. If untreated at that point, what follows is pain, swelling and sometimes discharge. Sometimes a ringing in the affected ear, known as tinnitus, can occur. Fortunately, any hearing loss or muffling that accompanies swimmer’s ear is temporary, as it abates with treatment.

Fortunately the treatment is fairly straightforward. A healthcare professional can prescribe antibiotic drops; applied for seven to 10 days, they usually take care of the problem. The pain that is a hallmark of swimmer’s ear usually subsides after just a few days. For the infection to heal, doctors usually recommend no swimming for two weeks. In addition to no swimming, during the course of treatment ears must be kept dry during bathing or showering; earplugs or cotton with petroleum jelly should be used to keep the moisture out of the ear area.

The best way to reduce the chances of getting swimmer’s ear is to take some easy precautions:

  • Make sure to dry ears with a towel after swimming.
  • Tilt your head to each side to allow any excess water to drain.
  • Use earplugs or a swim cap when swimming, especially in lakes and rivers.
  • Don’t insert anything into ears, and especially avoid the use of cotton swabs to clean ears.
  • The use of a hairdryer on a low setting can be used to alleviate moisture in the ear.

And don’t worry; if you do happen to get swimmer’s ear, your summer fun doesn’t have to be over. Seeing a hearing care professional promptly to get treatment started right away will not only ease your discomfort, it will get you back in the water in no time.

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