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6 Myths About Swimmer's Ear Debunked

Jun 04, 2024 Urgent Care Share:

As the weather heats up and people start to spend more time in lakes and pools, we start to see more cases of swimmer’s ear in our urgent care clinics.

We’re debunking some of the most common myths about swimmer’s ear so that an outer ear infection doesn’t get in the way of your summer plans.

What is Swimmer's Ear?

Swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear canal. Swimmer’s ear is often caused by water that stays in the ear after swimming. However, it can also be caused by injury to the ear canal or skin conditions like eczema or dermatitis in the ear, which can compromise the skin barrier and foster the growth of bacteria.

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear include itching, redness, discomfort, and drainage from the ear. Fever is uncommon with swimmer’s ear unless the infection has spread beyond the outer ear canal. An outer ear infection can be made worse by heat, humidity, and further exposure to the water. Swimmer’s ear is uncomfortable but treatable, and treatment can prevent it from worsening or spreading.

Common Myths about Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer’s ear is often misunderstood. We want you to have all the facts about outer ear infections so that if you do experience ear pain this summer (or any time of year), you know just what to do.

Myth #1: You can only get swimmer’s ear from swimming

“Swimmer’s ear” is a bit of a misnomer. Although an outer ear infection is commonly referred to as swimmer’s ear, you can get an infection in the outer ear canal even if you haven’t gone anywhere near a pool or a lake. Swimming is one way to get water trapped in your ear. But bathing and showering can also contribute to swimmer’s ear. The warm, moist environment is a place where bacteria can thrive.

Injuries or damage to the skin in your ear canal can also lead to an outer ear infection. Your skin is a key part of your immune system: it’s the barrier that keeps germs from getting into your body. In the same way that a wound on your arm can get infected if it’s not kept clean, a minor injury to your ear canal can also become infected. Cotton swabs, fingers, hair pins, and even earbuds can all damage the inside of your ear.

To minimize the risk of injury (and infection) to your ear, avoid inserting objects into your ear. (Yes, even the cotton swabs after your shower!) If you use earbuds, insert them carefully and do not force them into your ear canal.

Myth #2: All ear infections are the same

Several types of ear infections can affect different parts of the ear. These infections are distinct from one another and have different causes and symptoms. In an urgent care clinic, we most commonly see otitis externa, an outer ear infection, and otitis media, a middle ear infection. However, ear infections can affect any part of the ear.

You already know the causes of an outer ear infection. Middle ear infections, otitis media, are often caused by bacteria or viruses following an upper respiratory infection, cold, or a bout of allergies that leads to fluid buildup behind the ear drum.

While you rarely have a fever when you have swimmer’s ear, fever is more common with middle ear infections. Other symptoms of middle ear infections include:

  • Pain
  • Pressure or a feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Fluid drainage

Treatment also varies for the different types of ear infections. Treatment for swimmer’s ear often includes antibiotic drops or steroids. While a middle ear infection may require a course of oral antibiotics, treatment for otitis media often includes over-the-counter pain relievers and watchful waiting.

Myth #3: Swimmer’s ear is contagious

Good news: swimmer’s ear is not contagious! If several kids at the community pool or on the swim team happen to have swimmer’s ear, it’s because they’re all swimming – not because they’re spreading it among one another.

Swimmer’s ear develops as a result of personal, individual factors, not community spread. Factors that contribute to outer ear infections include:

  • Exposure to moisture
  • Anatomy and structure of the ear canal
  • Condition of the skin in the ear

You don’t need to stay away from others if you have an outer ear infection, but you may need to stay away from the water until it heals.

Myth #4: You can treat swimmer’s ear at home

Sometimes, treatment for an ear infection involves watchful waiting, especially if your provider believes a middle ear infection has a viral cause. However, swimmer’s ear is a little different.

Just because patients rarely get fevers with outer ear infections doesn’t mean that you can forgo treatment. Ignoring treatment for swimmer’s ear can cause the infection to worsen or spread.

Treatment for swimmer’s ear is usually straightforward and easy, and it often includes:

  • Prescription antibiotic ear drops to directly treat the site of the infection
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Keeping the ear clean and dry

Generally, patients should refrain from swimming if they have swimmer’s ear because it’s painful and can slow healing or even make symptoms worse. However, if you must swim while recovering from an outer ear infection, talk to your urgent care provider. They may recommend the use of waterproof ear plugs and/or a swim cap to prevent water from entering the ear canal.

Myth #5: Only children can get swimmer's ear (and other ear infections)

While children and adolescents are more commonly diagnosed with ear infections, adults can also be affected. The causes of ear infections in both children and adults are the same. Anyone who has an ear can get an ear infection.

Myth #6: You can’t get swimmer’s ear from swimming in a chlorinated pool

While the ocean, lakes, and unchlorinated pools can introduce bacteria into the ear, even chlorinated water can become trapped in the ear canal and contribute to an outer ear infection. Anytime you swim, you should make sure to empty the water from your ear canal and dry your ear thoroughly.

You can dry your ear manually by using a towel or a hair dryer, or you can shake your head to the side to force water out. You should not use a cotton swab to dry your ear, because it can push water further into your ear canal or damage your ear canal.

What to Do if You Think You Have Swimmer's Ear

If you think you have an outer ear infection, visit an urgent care clinic near you. Although it may not seem like a serious condition, it’s important to get treatment to prevent your infection from worsening or spreading. Treatment for swimmer’s ear is straightforward and easy, and your infection will usually heal in a few days.

Over-the-counter ear drops can help dry the ear canal or inhibit the growth of bacteria, but they cannot treat a moderate to severe infection. If you swim frequently, these drops can be a great preventive option to add to your post-swim routine.

Don’t let a case of swimmer’s ear keep you from having fun this summer: get quick treatment for your outer ear infection by visiting a local urgent care clinic. At MedHelp urgent care clinics, you can get quick, compassionate care from our providers 7 days a week so you can get back to doing what you love.

Birmingham Urgent Care Clinics

With four locations in the Birmingham metro area, MedHelp urgent care clinics are close by and convenient to patients in Jefferson and Shelby County. We're open seven days a week with extended hours on weekdays so you don't have to let illness - or ear infections - get in the way of your summer plans.