You're simply less likely to develop a middle ear infection, thanks to the structure of your eustachian tubes. There are still other infections you may fall prey to—one of the most common is otitis externa, an infection of the outer ear canal also known as swimmer's ear.

What Causes Swimmer's Ear?

Typically, swimmer's ear results from the excessive buildup of moisture in the ear canal. Exposure to tainted water is a common cause of swimmer's ear, as is spending too much time in a warm, humid environment. Per Johns Hopkins Medicine, other potential causes and risk factors associated with swimmer's ear include: 

  • Damage to the ear canal, especially from improper cleaning.
  • Untreated cerumen impaction.
  • Eczema or psoriasis within the ear canal. 
  • Foreign objects stuck in the ear.
  • Fungal infection.

Why is Otitis Externa Called Swimmer's Ear?

Because moisture buildup is one of the most common causes of otitis externa, the condition occurs most frequently in people who spend a lot of time in or around the water. This may include swimmers, competitive rowers, and boating hobbyists. Certain careers also have a higher risk of developing swimmer's ear, such as professional divers and fisherpeople.

What Are The Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear?

In most cases, swimmer's ear presents itself with symptoms similar to those of a typical ear infection. These may include: 

  • Redness.
  • Inflammation of the outer ear or ear canal.
  • Itching.
  • Pain, especially when touching or tugging on the earlobe.
  • Swollen glands.
  • Fever.
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear.
  • Impaired hearing.
  • Discharge from the ear canal.

Swimmer's ear often resolves on its own. However, should you fail to seek proper treatment, there's the potential for severe complications. These may include: 

  • Permanent hearing damage.
  • Damage to the cartilage or bones surrounding the ear.
  • Infection of the nerves, bones, or even the brain. 

That's why it's generally a good idea to contact a medical professional even if you're experiencing relatively mild symptoms. In addition, we advise you to seek medical assistance immediately if: 

  • You recently swam in a river, lake, or canal.
  • You've noticed a foul-smelling discharge from your ear.
  • You have a weakened immune system.
  • You are prone to conditions such as eczema.

How is Swimmer's Ear Diagnosed?

If you visit your doctor while presenting symptoms of swimmer's ear, they'll typically begin with a physical exam via otoscope. Although a family doctor likely already knows your medical history, they may question you about recent activity in an effort to determine when the infection developed. They may also take a sample with a cotton swab to determine if the infection is viral, fungal, or bacterial in nature.

How is Swimmer's Ear Typically Treated?

The good news about swimmer's ear is that it's relatively simple to treat. Your doctor will typically prescribe a specialized antibiotic, antiviral, or antifungal ear drops. They may also prescribe pain and anti-inflammatory medication. 

Over the course of your treatment, you must keep your ear dry, lest you risk reinfection. Provided you follow your care provider's instructions, the prognosis for swimmer's ear is incredibly positive, and symptoms will typically disappear in a week or two. 

How Can I Avoid Swimmer's Ear?

As you may have guessed, the best way to avoid swimmer's ear is to keep your ears dry. If possible, consider using earplugs when swimming. If you have hearing aids or use earbuds, regularly remove them over the course of the day to ensure that they remain dry—this also protects the electronics from moisture. 

Make sure to properly drain your ears whenever you notice any moisture buildup. This usually won't require you to do much more than tilt your head from side to side. You might also consider using a hairdryer or towel, though that's not strictly necessary.

What you should never, under any circumstances, do is attempt to dry or clean your ears with any foreign object. This especially includes cotton swabs and fingers. There's a good chance that using these will actually cause an infection rather than prevent it. 

Finally, try to avoid swimming in water that may be tainted.