DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I swim for exercise and relaxation. I try to get in the pool about three times a week. Recently, I have begun to have episodes where it feels like water is still in my ear. Then my ear becomes red and painful. A friend suggested I might have swimmer's ear. Is this something that is easy to treat? Do I need to stop swimming?
ANSWER: Swimmer's ear is an infection in the outer ear canal, which runs from your eardrum to the outside of your head. It's often brought on by water that remains in your ear, creating a moist environment that aids the growth of bacteria.
Swimmer's ear also is known as otitis externa, and it can affect people of any age. And it can affect those who do not spend time in the water, since it occurs because of bacteria invading the skin inside the ear canal. Excess moisture in the ear from heavy perspiration or prolonged humid weather also can be a culprit.
Scratches or abrasions in the ear canal increase the risk of developing otitis externa. Putting fingers, cotton swabs or other objects in the ears, such as earbuds or hearing aids, also can lead to this infection by damaging the thin layer of skin lining the ear canal. Any small breaks in the skin can allow bacteria to grow.
Being aware of the risk for the condition and prompt treatment can prevent complications and other, more serious issues. Typically, you can treat swimmer's ear with ear drops. Recurrent infections may require additional treatment.
Common signs of swimmer's ear are what you described: redness and mild discomfort that worsens when the ear is pulled or pushed. Occasionally, people have itching in the ear canal as well as some drainage of clear, odorless fluid. Swimmer's ear symptoms are usually mild at first, but they can worsen if the infection isn't treated or spreads.
It is important to be aware if you begin to experience a feeling of fullness in your ears, increased pain or more intense itching, or begin to have hearing complications. The infection may be progressing. However, temporary hearing loss could occur until the infection clears.
Follow these tips to avoid swimmer's ear:
Since you have not been diagnosed with swimmer's ear, it would be helpful to talk with your primary health care professional to confirm the condition and provide the proper treatment. You should not have to give up swimming for exercise, but you may need to take a temporary break from the pool for a few days. Your health care team can offer guidance on when to return to the water. — Compiled by Mayo Clinic staff