Treatment for the early stages of swimmer’s ear includes careful cleaning of the ear canal and use of eardrops that inhibit bacterial or fungal growth and reduce inflammation. Mildly acidic solutions containing boric or acetic acid are often effective for early infections.
Before using any drops in the ear, it is important to be sure you do not have a perforated eardrum (an eardrum with a hole in it). Check with your ENT specialist if you have ever had a perforated, punctured, or injured eardrum, or if you have had prior ear surgery.
Drops are more easily administered if done by someone other than the patient, and the patient should lie down with the affected ear facing upwards. Prescription drops should be placed in the ear as directed on the label. After drops are administered, the patient should remain lying down for a few minutes, so the drops have time to work.
If you do not have a perforated eardrum or a tube in your eardrum placed by a doctor in the past, you can make your own eardrops using rubbing alcohol or a mixture of half alcohol and half vinegar. These eardrops will evaporate excess water and keep your ears dry.
For more severe infections, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to be applied directly to the ear. If the ear canal is swollen shut, your doctor may place a sponge or wick in the canal so the antibiotic drops will enter the swollen canal more effectively. Pain medication may also be prescribed. If you have tubes in your eardrum, a non-ototoxic (do not damage your hearing) topical treatment should be used. Topical antibiotics are effective for infection limited to the ear canal. Oral antibiotics may also be prescribed if the infection goes beyond the skin of the ear canal.
Follow-up appointments are very important to monitor your condition, to clean the ear again, and to replace the ear wick as needed. Your ENT specialist has specific equipment and expertise to effectively clean the ear canal and treat swimmer’s ear. With proper treatment, most infections should clear up in seven to 10 days.
How Can Swimmer’s Ear be Prevented?
A dry ear is unlikely to become infected, so it is important to keep the ears free of moisture during swimming or bathing. Prevention tips include:
- Use ear plugs when swimming.
- Use a dry towel or hair dryer (from a distance) to dry your ears.
- Have your ears cleaned periodically by an ENT specialist if you have itchy, flaky or scaly ears, or extensive earwax.
- Do not use cotton swabs to remove ear wax. They may pack ear wax and dirt deeper into the ear canal, remove the layer of earwax that protects your ear, and irritate the thin skin of the ear canal. This creates an ideal environment for infection.