“But I’m not a swimmer!” you say. You don’t have to be. The infection can get started when you’re just taking a shower. But you can be quite sure it’s swimmer’s ear if you feel a piercing pain when you push on the triangular flap that covers the opening to the ear canal. To deal with the pain, your easiest option is an over-the-counter painkiller such as aspirin or acetaminophen. Also try heat to ease the ache and take steps (described below) to dry out the ear canal and make it unfriendly to the bacteria or fungi that caused the infection.
Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear canal. It happens when water gets trapped in your ears and allows bacteria or fungi to flourish. At first, the affected ear feels blocked and may itch. If you leave it untreated, the infection can cause swelling, accompanied by some drainage of fluid. The condition can be quite painful. Often, the area that hurts the most is the triangular piece of cartilage called the tragus that covers the front of the ear canal.
Warming the Cockles
For soothing relief, treat your ear to heat. Use a hot-water bottle or a heating pad set on low. If you’re using the bottle, wrap it in a towel so it feels comfortably warm, not super hot. If you’re using a heating pad, for safety’s sake, be careful not to fall asleep with that electric pad nestled against your ear.
Drop In Center
- Take advantage of garlic’s potent antibacterial properties and use this herb in eardrops. You can buy garlic oil in health food stores, or make your own. Grate three medium cloves of garlic and place them in a shallow dish. Cover them with olive oil and let the mixture stand overnight. Strain out the garlic and apply 3 drops in the affected ear.
- If your infection itches but doesn’t hurt, mix equal parts of rubbing alcohol with distilled white vinegar, and use a clean eyedropper to put a few drops in your ear. Tilt your head so the mixture flows into the ear canal, then tug your earlobe to make sure it flows all the way in. Keep your head tilted (or lie down) for a few minutes, then sit erect and tilt your ear toward your shoulder to let the excess drain out. (You’ll need a tissue or handkerchief to catch the runoff.) Because vinegar creates an acid environment — inhospitable to bacteria and fungi — it helps to clear infection. And the drops also help dry out the ear canal, because they contain alcohol, which evaporates rapidly.
- If your ear is painful, skip the alcohol. Just use vinegar blended with a few drops of water.
If your ear itches, mix a few drops of lavender oil with a teaspoon of olive oil and rub the mixture in your outer ear. You don’t need to use much.
Should I Call the Doctor?
If you’ve ever had a ruptured eardrum or had tubes put in your ears, see your doctor for any kind of earache. Otherwise, you can usually treat a mild case of swimmer’s ear at home. But if you develop sudden, severe ear pain, or hearing loss, get to the doctor.
You’ll also need a doctor’s help if you have signs or symptoms of a punctured eardrum (blood, discharge from the ear, very intense pain followed by sudden relief). For swimmer’s ear that doesn’t respond to home remedies, a doctor can prescribe antibiotics.
The Power of Prevention
- Wear wax or silicone earplugs, available at most drugstores, to keep your ears dry when you’re swimming or showering. The earplugs can be softened and shaped to fit snugly into your outer ear canal.
- After you swim or shower, shake your head to remove any water that remains in your ears. Better yet, gently blow-dry your ears. Pull the flap of your ear to create an open airway to your ear canal. Set the hair dryer on the lowest setting and direct the airstream into your ear for 30 seconds. The nozzle of the hair dryer should be about 18 inches away.
- Dilute a small amount of apple cider vinegar with an equal amount of distilled water and use 1 drop in each ear after you swim or shower. The vinegar is good for preventing bacterial and fungal infections as well as clearing them up.
- Don’t try to get all the wax out of your ears. In normal amounts, earwax coats the ear canal, which protects your inner ear from moisture.
Swimming Against Current and Recurrent Infections
Usually swimmer’s ear is easy to treat and goes away, never to be heard from again. But not always. In about one percent of all cases, it comes back again no matter what you do to prevent a recurrence. Some particularly hard-to-treat bacteria has set up home in your ear, and all you can do is try to keep it under control. If you have this problem, be sure to keep your doctor informed. In rare cases, the infection can spread into nearby tissue around the ear (a severe condition called malignant otitis externa). People with diabetes and those with compromised immune systems are most susceptible.