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Swimmer’s ear, and how to prevent it

Drying the outside of your ears after bathing

Drying the outside of your ears after bathing can help prevent swimmer's ear. Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto

Swimmer’s ear is an infection in the outer ear canal, which runs from your eardrum to the outside of your head. It’s often brought on by water that remains in your ear after swimming, creating a moist environment that aids bacterial growth.

Putting fingers, cotton swabs or other objects in your ears also can lead to swimmer’s ear by damaging the thin layer of skin lining your ear canal.

The most common cause of this infection is bacteria invading the skin inside your ear canal. Usually you can treat swimmer’s ear with eardrops. Prompt treatment can help prevent complications and more serious infections.

  • Keep your ears dry. Dry your ears thoroughly after exposure to moisture from swimming or bathing. Dry only your outer ear, wiping it slowly and gently with a soft towel or cloth. Tip your head to the side to help water drain from your ear canal. You can dry your ears with a blow dryer if you put it on the lowest setting and hold it at least a foot away from the ear.
  • At-home preventive treatment. If you know you don’t have a punctured eardrum, you can use homemade preventive eardrops before and after swimming. A mixture of 1 part white vinegar to 1 part rubbing alcohol may help promote drying and prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi that can cause swimmer’s ear. Pour 1 teaspoon of the solution into each ear and let it drain back out. Similar over-the-counter solutions may be available at your drugstore.
  • Swim wisely. Watch for signs alerting swimmers to high bacterial counts and don’t swim on those days.
  • Avoid putting foreign objects in your ear. Never attempt to scratch an itch or dig out earwax with items such as a cotton swab, paper clip or hairpin. Using these items can pack material deeper into your ear canal, irritate the thin skin inside your ear or break the skin.

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