“I’m bored.” The two dreaded words that echo in parents’ ears during the summer months. When school’s out, finding ways to entertain the kids can feel like a full-time job. So when a case of swimmer’s ear strikes, it can really derail the whole family and any plans for another nice, relaxing day at the pool.
In this post, we’ll answer all of your questions about swimmer’s ear, including:
- What is swimmer’s ear?
- What causes swimmer’s ear?
- What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear?
- How do you treat swimmer’s ear?
- How can you prevent swimmer’s ear?
What is Swimmer’s Ear?
Swimmer’s ear, known as acute otitis externa in the medical community, occurs when water gets trapped in the ear. Water can generally flow in and out of the ear, but when water gets trapped, it breeds bacteria or fungus. This causes inflammation, irritation, and infection.
What Causes Swimmer’s Ear?
The condition is called swimmer’s ear, because it usually occurs from prolonged time in the water—not from a little water getting in the ear during a bath or shower. But it is possible to get swimmer’s ear without ever stepping foot in a pool. A scratch or other irritation to the ear canal can allow bacteria to grow, resulting in swimmer’s ear. (source)
Other less common causes of swimmer’s ear include:
- Moist areas where bacteria usually breed, like hot tubs or polluted water
- Excessive cleaning of the ear canal with cotton swabs
- Contact with certain chemicals such as hair spray or hair dye
- A cut or scratch in the ear canal
- Other skin conditions like eczema or seborrhea
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Why Do Some Kids Seem More Prone to Swimmer’s Ear?
If your child doesn’t swim much, but tends to get swimmer’s ear frequently, you may wonder what gives!? Though there aren’t any studies that specifically link swimmer’s ear to gut flora or high-sugar diets, there is plenty of evidence to suggest our microbiota and our diets are directly associated with certain conditions, like inflammatory bowel disease, necrotizing enterocolitis, diabetes, obesity, cancer, allergies, and asthma.
Since swimmer’s ear results from inflammation of the ear canal, some experts believe there could, therefore, also be a connection between gut flora, diet, and swimmer’s ear.
“A poor diet with high sugar increases inflammation,” says Integrative Pediatrician Dr. Joel Gator Warsh. “While your body is dealing with that inflammation, it isn’t dealing with other infections as efficiently leading to overgrowth of bacteria like swimmers ear.”
If your child gets frequent swimmer’s ear, try giving him/her probiotics and eliminate as much refined sugar from his/her diet to see if that helps. It’s worth a shot!
Swimmer’s Ear Symptoms
Ear pain is the number one sign of swimmer’s ear. Just touching the ear may be painful when you have swimmer’s ear. If severe, the pain may even spread to the neck, face, or side of the head.
Other signs of swimmer’s ear include:
- a feeling that the ear is blocked or full
- decreased hearing
- jaw pain
- swollen lymph nodes
- redness of the ear
Home Remedies for Swimmer’s Ear
If caught early, swimmer’s ear is easy to treat. With careful cleaning and some home remedies to help reduce bacteria and inflammation, your little swimmer will be back in the pool in no time. Always check in with doctor before trying home remedies.
To get rid of swimmer’s ear at home, try the following:
1. Onion juice
There’s evidence that onion juice has been used to treat ear infections since the 1800s. Though there’s anecdotal evidence abound, scientific evidence is limited. Research suggests quercetin—a flavanoid that’s highly concentrated in onions—has anti-inflammatory properties, but results are inconsistent. Another study suggest onions have powerful antibacterial properties, keeping cholera bacteria from growing in petri dishes.
How to treat swimmer’s ear with onion juice in two ways (source):
- Cut an onion in half, warm it up, wrap it in a towel, and hold it against the opening of the ear for about 20 minutes until it cools.
- Grate an onion, place it in a fine mesh sieve, and let the juice drip out into a bowl. Using a teaspoon or a dropper, place a few drops into the ear canal.
Garlic has antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral, and anticarcinogenic properties that are useful for treating a variety of ailments, including athlete’s foot, colds, and swimmer’s ear. (source) Why? Research suggests its organosulfur compounds may elicit anti-inflammatory immune responses.
How to treat swimmer’s ear with garlic:
- Place a few drops of garlic (or mullein) oil in the ear. Let sit undisturbed for a few minutes. Repeat twice per day. (You can make your own garlic oil at home by grating garlic into olive oil. Let it sit overnight, then strain the oil to remove any pieces of garlic.)
3. Coconut oil
Coconut oil is delicious, but it also has antimicrobial, antifungal, and antibacterial properties for the human body.
How to treat swimmer’s ear with coconut oil:
- Place 3-5 drops on a cotton swab and dab on the outer part of the ear and canal, being careful not to go to deep into the ear and touch the ear drum, says Warsh.
- Or wet a cotton ball (5-10 drops) with coconut oil and tape that to the outside of the ear covering the canal. Leave on for 5-10 minutes, allowing the fumes to enter the ear.
4. Apple cider vinegar
There are so many uses for apple cider vinegar, it’s no surprise this wonder ingredient can help with swimmer’s ear, too. The vinegar’s acidity is supposed to kill and stop the spread of bacteria in the ear. (source)
How to treat swimmer’s ear with apple cider vinegar:
- Place a few drops of undiluted apple cider vinegar (white vinegar will work, too) in the ear. Let sit for 15 minutes. Repeat as needed throughout the day.
5. Rubbing alcohol/vinegar solution
This mixtures helps relieve swimmer’s ear, because the alcohol combines water in the ear and then evaporates. The acidity of the vinegar helps prevent bacteria from growing. (source)
How to treat swimmer’s ear with a rubbing alcohol and vinegar solution:
- Mix 1 part rubbing alcohol with 1 part apple cider vinegar. Apply a couple of drops of solution in each ear. Repeat twice per day.
6. Hydrogen peroxide
Though there is some question as to whether hydrogen peroxide (3%) can affectively kill bacteria, it has been proven to limit the spread of bacteria and eliminate fungus, making it an effective way to manage a slight case of swimmer’s ear. (source)
How to treat swimmer’s ear with hydrogen peroxide:
- Mix 1 part hydrogen peroxide (room temperature) with 1 part water to minimize discomfort. Place a few drops on a cotton swab and clean the ear canal, being careful not to penetrate the ear too deeply, or place a few drops directly in the ear. If using drops, leave in for approximately 30 seconds.
Heat not only helps relieve discomfort, but it can also help evaporate any water in the ear. Use a hair dryer set on low to blow warm air into the ear, or wrap a hot water bottle in a towel and hold against the ear for 20 minutes. (source)
Swimmer’s Ear Drops
Some cases of swimmer’s ear are stubborn and require antibiotics. Call your doctor if ear pain becomes severe or if symptoms persist for more than 5-7 days. (source)
A doctor may prescribe antibiotic ear drops to help get rid of the infection. Often the ear will begin to feel better before the full course of antibiotics is complete, but it’s important to use the ear drops for the duration of the prescription. Stopping too soon may cause the infection to return.
In more severe cases, doctors may place a medicated wick, or a small sponge, into the ear to allow drops to reach the ear canal. In these cases, follow-up appointments are necessary to monitor progress, clean the ear, and replace the wick as needed.
If an infection develops that affects more than the ear canal, oral antibiotics may be prescribed. (source) You can support your child’s gut by taking high-quality probiotics after treatment or these spore-based probiotics during treatment.
How to Apply Ear Drops Correctly
No matter if you’re using a home remedy or prescribed ear drops, here’s how to apply ear drops for maximum efficacy:
- Lie down with the affected ear facing upwards
- Place drops in the ear until the ear is full
- Remain lying down for a few minutes (or up to 15 minutes, as directed) to allow drops to be absorbed
How Long Does Swimmer’s Ear Last?
As soon as the pain begins to subside, the one thing your kid probably wants to know is when can I go back in the pool again? The answer depends based on the severity, but with proper treatment, most symptoms ease within 3 days and most cases clear completely within 7-10 days. (source)
Can You Lose Your Hearing From Swimmer’s Ear?
In extreme cases, the skin in the ear canal may swell so much that it begins to close over the ear drum. This can lead to muffled or decreased hearing. Sounds scary, right?! Luckily, any hearing loss is temporary—your hearing will be back to normal as soon as the swelling subsides. (source)
How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear
Though proper precautions can certainly minimize the chance of getting swimmer’s ear, there is no way to entirely prevent it—besides staying out of the pool, but as discussed above, even that’s not foolproof.
The best way to avoid swimmer’s ear is to keep ears clean and dry, which prevents bacteria from forming and growing. These steps can help:
- Drain ears after swimming, showers, or baths: After time in water, turn or shake your head to each side to facilitate draining. As an alternative, you can lay on each side for 5 minutes or use a hair dryer set to low to evaporate water.
- Avoid cotton swabs after showers or baths: If there is water in the ear, cotton swaps can push wax buildup further into the ear, trapping water behind it.
- Rinse ear canals after swimming: If swimmer’s ear is persistent, place a few drops of the rubbing alcohol and vinegar solution mentioned above (or apple cider vinegar or hydrogen peroxide) in ears after swimming or bathing.
- Use wax ear plugs while swimming: Properly fitting ear plugs can help prevent water from entering the ear canal in the first place.
How About You?
Did you or your child ever get swimmer’s ear? What natural remedies worked for you?