On holiday with swimmer’s ear

At some point in our lives 1 in 4 of us will suffer from otitis externa, otherwise known as swimmer’s ear, but how should we treat it and what should we do if it develops while we are holidaying abroad? 

Otitis externa is an infection, inflammation or pain in the ear made worse by water trapped in the ear canal.  It occurs frequently in swimmers but can happen to anyone.

Main causes of swimmer’s ear

A break in the skin lining of the outer ear or ear canal will allow bacteria or fungi to invade the outer ear.  A break in the skin can be caused by anything from scratching the ear to inserting cotton buds or by simply inserting devices into the ear such as ear plugs, headphones, or hearing aids or through the ear coming into contact with certain chemicals such as hairspray or dyes.

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:

  • Pain
  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Draining fluid or pus
  • Hearing difficulties

Symptoms usually pass over a period of a few days but it is possible for infection to develop if the water/wax is not removed.

Using cotton buds is not recommended to try and remove the water or wax as this can potentially push it further into your ear, as well as possibly perforating the eardrum. Instead try one or more of the following suggestions.

Ways to help remove water and wax from the ear

  • Tilt the head sideways at the same time pull the ear lobe downwards as gravity may drain the ear canal
  • Try yawning, chewing and blowing to help ease the Eustachian tubes and clear the passages
  • Place a hand over your ear to create a vacuum then gently release to help draw the water out
  • Try using a hairdryer about a foot from your ear to help draw moisture out of the ear – hold for around 30 seconds and repeat
  • A heat compress applied against the ear or steam inhalations may help to open the Eustachian tubes
  • Drops such as olive oil, vinegar and alcohol, or hydrogen peroxide may help to break down wax
  • Over the counter medications such as Otex, Earex, Otodex, Otodine and sodium bicarbonate preparations may also help to soften wax and reduce inflammation.

If these self-help methods don’t resolve the problem or the symptoms get worse or you develop pain, high temperature or swelling then it may indicate that the ear has become infected.  In this case you should seek medical help as soon as you can.

If there is an infection present and you are abroad then you should make an appointment to see a local doctor as antibiotics may be needed.  It is important to calm the infection as soon as possible, especially if you are scheduled to take a flight.

Flying with an ear infection

It is definitely not recommended to take a flight with an ear or sinus infection as the swelling of the ear canal interferes with the way your ear equalises pressure during take-off and landing and so may lead to cause the eardrum to burst.

Click here to find out more on flying with an ear infection.

Holidaying with blocked ears

Try to avoid water sports but if you must swim then consider using ear plugs or wear a swimming cap to cover your ears and protect them from water.

Try to empty your ears of water immediately after swimming.

Be careful when having a shower or bath and try to avoid getting water, soap or shampoo into your ears.

Avoid inserting cotton wool buds and other things into your ears (including your fingers), as this can damage the sensitive skin in your ear canal.

Click here for our article on what’s best to pack for your holiday.

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29th Jun 2019
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Take ear pain seriously. Mine started the day I got back from holiday in Spain last August. Had swum in sea, and dived to bottom of pool playing with great=grandson. Five different antibiotics from GP did nothing, and as I was booked for a four-hour flight to Turkey with friends in September to a villa with pool, I consulted a specialist privately. The holiday was off; they went without me...., a suitable antibiotic was found,

One more ineffective antibiotic, then sent to hospital for intra-venous injection of a more powerful one. Immediately passed out! By this time severe pain had spread all around the back of my ear and into the jaw-bone: necrotising otitis. This infects the skullbone and can prove fatal if the infection gets into the brain. (My specialist only told me this later, when he discharged me.)

I was in hospital nine days, and my hearing is still affected. I am very careful now not to let water into my ears, and was prescribed ear-plugs. I'm trying Turkey again soon, and will be a lot more careful.

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