ZocdocAnswersWhat is it about swimming that causes ear infections?

Question

What is it about swimming that causes ear infections?

Every time I swim my ear starts to hurt. Once I got an infection. Should I wear earplugs?

Answer

This question is hard to answer without taking a complete history and doing a thorough exam. Nonetheless, I can speculate as to what different things may be going on. First of all...swimming and ear infections. Your ear canal is separated from your middle ear by the tympanic membrane (ear drum). Thus the only way for you to develop otitis media (middle ear infection) from swimming were if there were a hole that communicated the EAC (external auditory canal) with the middle ear (ex perforated ear drum, ear tube in place). Thus some ENT's (ear nose throat doctors) that place ear tubes won't let their patients swim afterwards. Assuming that you don;t have a perforation or ear tubes, then the only infection that you could get from swimming would be otitis externa (outer ear infection aka "swimmers ear"). This would manifest itself as a very painful ear with drainage. Typically treated with antibiotic drops (+/- oral antibiotics). So the pain you have with swimming may be from either of these situations. But assuming that you don;t get ear infections every time you swim, the more likely cause of the pain you get is irritation of the ear canal from the cold water that you are swimming in. In fact prolonged exposure to cold water in the ears (surfers, divers, etc) can lead to chronic irritation of the lining on the bone of the ear canal, called periosteum, can lead to bony overgrowth called exostosis. If you develop ear drainage, hearing loss, tinnitus, dizziness, or significant persistent pain, I would definitely recommend going to an ENT. Hope this helps.

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