Of all the small nuisances that can happen at the pool, getting water stuck in your ear is one of the most annoying — and possibly most dangerous. Although your first instinct may be to ignore a little water swishing around your ear, you really should try to get it out. It turns out that just a tiny bit of water could actually cause a serious infection.
Swimmer's ear is an infection of the outer ear or ear canal, usually caused by water getting in an "unprotected ear canal," says Erich Voigt, MD, otolaryngologist and clinical associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at NYU Langone Medical Center. It's pretty common, but swimmer's ear is no joke: "Outer ear infections, or swimmer's ear, are some of the most painful experiences a person may have," Dr. Voigt says.
If you have swimmer's ear, the first thing you'll notice is that your ear feels itchy or sore, according to the Mayo Clinic. "As the infection progresses, the ear becomes more more swollen and very painful," Dr. Voigt says. In extreme cases, the skin in your ear canal can swell, develop pus, and potentially impair your hearing, which means this is something you definitely want to avoid.
How can something so innocuous turn so evil? Well, it's very dark and moist inside your ear canal. And when water gets in there, it can get trapped and become warm. "This is a set up for certain germs, bacteria, or fungus to overgrow and make an infection," Dr. Voigt says. So you've got to get all that water out of your ear ASAP.
The safest way to do so is to tilt your head to the side or wiggle your ear with your hand so that the water drips out, Dr. Voigt says. You can also place your finger into a dry towel, and use it to mop out any water from the ear canal, Dr. Voigt says. There's also a chance that the water will just flow out on its own as the day progresses. "Normal daily talking, yawning, and chewing result in the very slow and natural flow of ear wax and skin from the inside of the ear canal to the outside," Dr. Voigt says. That also can help usher the water out of your ear canal.
Using homemade ear drops before or after you swim can help prevent swimmer's ear, according to the Mayo Clinic. "Rubbing alcohol, vinegar, and hydrogen peroxide can all be used to remove water from the ear canal," Dr. Voigt says. Just pour about a teaspoon of one-part rubbing alcohol and one-part vinegar in your ear, then let it drain back out, the Mayo Clinic recommends. Basically, these drops will dry out your ear canal, so that bacteria, fungi, or other germs can't grow. This all might sound a little high-maintenance, but swimmer's ear is a real pain. So it's important to take the right precautions, especially if you're a regular swimmer or get swimmer's ear frequently.
One thing you really shouldn't do if you have water in your ear is put a Q-Tip inside. "Q-Tips tend to push wax and debris deeper in the canal, and this material can then get stuck inside," he says. Ears are supposed to have wax (a.k.a. "cerumen") in them, because it serves as a protective coating. But some people remove too much of their cerumen with Q-tips, and other people don't make enough cerumen. Either way, not having proper cerumen makes your skin vulnerable to infections like swimmer's ear, Dr. Voigt explains.
These home remedies might work like a charm. But if your ear is still clogged with water after trying them out, you should really see a doctor, Dr. Voigt says. You might need to have your ear cleaned out, or your doctor might prescribe medications, such as a steroid or antibiotic. "If your ear is painful, clogged, or you aren't hearing well, there is not much you can do on your own," he says. "See a doctor sooner than later, before the problem worsens." And, in general, it takes about a week or two for an infection to clear up. So you'll be back in the water soon enough.