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How to Care for Your Ears

Preventing Ear Problems

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Swimmer's ear is an infection of the outer ear canal.

Here are some tips for avoiding some typical ear problems.

Swimmer's Ear

Warm, sunny days on the beach are fun. Coping with swimmer's ear is not -- nor is it inevitable.


Swimmer's ear (called otitis externa) is an infection of the outer ear canal, usually caused by common bacteria, sometimes by a fungus. The condition can crop up when bacteria nestle into an outer ear canal that is warm and moist -- conditions bacteria love. Being in the water a lot not only creates those conditions, but it tends to wash away the natural oily, waxy substance that normally lines and protects the ear canal. Bacteria can then get the upper hand, and you get an infection.

Actually, other activities besides swimming can trigger a case of otitis externa. For instance, water can be left in your ear after taking a shower. Or water may not be involved at all: Poking around with a bobby pin or cotton-tipped swab can scratch the delicate skin in the ear canal and break down the barrier against bacteria.

Whatever the cause, swimmer's ear usually starts with an itching or tingling in the ear. Resist the urge to scratch; that will make the problem worse. In more severe cases, you may experience pain and discharge, or even have some hearing loss due to swelling of the ear canal. One way to tell if the infection is in the outer ear -- and not deeper inside -- is if your ear hurts when you gently pull on it and wiggle it.

But swimmer's ear isn't an inevitable outcome of a day at the pool or beach. Here are a few simple preventive measures:

  • Avoid swimming in dirty water where there will be more bacteria.
  • Don't let the water sit in your ear. Usually you can feel it swishing around in there. Shake the water out after a shower or swim.
  • Use over-the-counter antiseptic ear drops if you're a frequent swimmer to prevent infections from occurring. Or whip up an antiseptic mixture of your own using equal amounts of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar. Don't do this if your eardrum is not completely intact. Check with your doctor before using this technique to be sure it's safe for you.
  • Use a swimming cap to keep the water out.
  • Don't poke around in your outer ears with anything. Doing so will remove nature's protection against bacteria.

Checkups: Most people only get their ears checked when they're bothered by them. There may be nothing wrong with that. Hard and fast rules don't exist on how often to get a hearing exam, but there are a couple points to keep in mind.

Cleaning: Contrary to what many people think, most of the time it's best to just leave earwax alone. It's in your ear for a good reason: to trap dust, bacteria, and other particles that might cause injury, irritation, or infection. Sometimes, however, earwax builds up. Even so, ears are self-cleaning for the most part. Jaw movements when you eat and talk eventually push wax to the outer ear, where you can easily remove it by wiping with a damp piece of cotton.

Only when the earwax is causing discomfort or getting in the way of hearing should you do something to remove it from inside -- and then with extreme care. Cotton-tipped swabs should come with a warning label: DO NOT PUT IN YOUR EARS. Many people use them just for that purpose. But swabs can do more harm than good by pushing the wax deeper into your ear canal, even up against your eardrum, where it will interfere with hearing. Not only that, but they can also harm the delicate lining of the ear canal or poke a hole in your eardrum, either of which can lead to infection.

If earwax is truly bothering you and you need it removed, have a doctor do it for you. Steer clear of using over-the-counter drops to soften wax until you check with a doctor. If the problem is something other than earwax, the drops may exacerbate it.

Far and away the most common ear problem for children are infections. In the next section, we will tell you how to prevent and treat this problem.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.