Runners Beware: Swimmer’s Ear Isn’t Just for Swimmers (continued from the front page)

Trapped moisture is the culprit
Swimmer’s ear is a bacterial infection caused by a build-up of moisture in the ear canal. It is most often seen in conjunction with water exposure, but you need not jump in the pool to contract it. Other situations that can trap excess moisture in the ear canal include hearing aid use, use of noise-reducing ear plugs related to the workplace, and—the now ubiquitous, it seems—use of the small, rubberized insertables known as earbuds.

Advances in smartphone technology as well as in compact, often wireless headphone devices (many of them designed for runners, and most of those insertable) have increased the convenience and popularity of running while listening to music, podcasts and audiobooks. Combined with increased sweating in higher temperatures, the peaking popularity of earbud use has caused an uptick in swimmer’s ear in runners.

Avoid cotton swabs
The way to help prevent swimmer’s ear is to make sure excess moisture is removed from the ear after training. To dry out the ear canal, do not use a cotton swab (Q-Tip). Swabs are for cleaning the grooves in the cartilage around the ear canal; when they are used incorrectly by inserting in the ear canal, they can push ear wax deeper down into the ear, causing an impaction that itself traps moisture, leading to swimmer’s ear. 

It’s better to hold a hairdryer up to your ear for a few seconds, on its lowest setting, gently passing near the ear canal to dry it out. You may also insert two or three drops of rubbing alcohol into the ear canal to help eliminate moisture. No liquid dropped into the ear can go deeper than the eardrum. Assuming that you have an intact eardrum, it’s pretty safe to put alcohol drops into the canal. Do note that this is not a home remedy for already-contracted swimmer’s ear, but a preventive step.

Treatment
Home remedies for swimmer’s ear, which can (rarely) clear up on its own, include mixing a few drops of rubbing alcohol with white vinegar. The acidity of the vinegar alters the pH of your ear canal, making it a less hospitable place for bacteria to thrive.

But if you do contract swimmer’s ear, it’s best to see an ENT physician who can administer topical antibiotics into the ear. Occasionally, an oral antibiotic will also be administered.

A painful infection
You can be more prone to getting swimmer’s ear depending on the shape and size of your ear. Symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:

  • a lot of pain in the ear canal
  • tenderness of the outer ear: pushing on the flap of cartilage in front of the ear known as the tragus will often illicit a very painful response
  • blocked hearing
  • a clogged ear sensation
  • drainage from the ear

Sometimes the ear canal will be swollen completely shut, requiring a physician to insert a wick to allow the medication to penetrate to the correct depth. After treatment, it’s important to avoid activities that would cause moisture build-up in the ear for a few days until the infection is fully healed.

And those unsanitary earbuds?
It’s a good idea to clean the rubberized tips of your earbuds with rubbing alcohol regularly. They can develop grime from use, and we are not always so careful about what surfaces we toss them casually down upon after a strenuous workout. However, earbuds themselves are not the reason for the swimmer’s ear infection—the cause is bacteria native to the ear canal that thrives in the perfect storm of too much moisture in an already-warm environment.

Personal corresp., Dr. Eugene Chio, Assistant Professor, Department of Otolaryngology, Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, Columbus, OH

(return to front page)