University of Iowa Health Science Relations and
Marlan R. Hansen, MD
Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery
First Published: 2000
Last Revised: September 2004
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
You don't need to be a swimmer to get swimmer's ear. Susceptible people can get it from taking showers or washing their hair.
More common in summer because more people get into dirty lake or river water, the ailment starts when a person gets water in the ear and the ear does not drain properly.
Instead, the water remains trapped in the ear canal and softens the delicate lining, making it attractive to bacteria or fungi. Once established, the organisms thrive in the warm, moist, dark environment of the outer ear canal.
The first indication that an organism has found such a home may be the strong desire on your part to scratch the itch inside your ear. This is the point where many people add to their problem, says Dr. Marlan R. Hansen, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology in the UI Carver College of Medicine.
Many people will take a pointed object, like a Q-tip, and rub it around in the ear. "This is the worst thing to do, as you may injure tissue and spread the infection," Dr. Hansen says.
If the infection spreads, the next sign will be pain when you move your outer ear. That's a sign to see the doctor for a prescription for antibiotic ear drops that will take care of most cases.
Making sure water drains out of the ear after swimming is one precaution that can be taken against swimmer's ear. A drop or two of rubbing alcohol may help dry the area. For persons who get recurrent infections when showering, Dr. Hansen suggests fitting cotton balls covered with white petroleum jelly in the outer ear when you shower to prevent water from entering the ear canal.