Ear infections are one of the top reasons kids and adults visit Indigo Urgent Care. And while they’re typically associated with wintertime colds and flu, ear infections are even more common this time of the year.
Bacteria love warm, moist places, which is why ear infections are so prevalent during summer months when water activities and humidity are at a high.
What’s the difference between swimmer’s ear and an ear infection?
An ear infection (otis media) is an infection in the middle ear, which is located just behind the eardrum. Middle ear infections happen most often during the fall and winter and are usually viral related and associated with an upper respiratory infection from a cold or flu.
Swimmer’s ear (otis externa) is an infection that starts in the outer ear, the canal that connects the ear drum to the outside of the head. It’s most often caused by water that remains in the ear after swimming or other water activities. Bacteria is normally the culprit, although swimmer’s ear can also be caused by a fungus or virus.
You can develop swimmer’s ear by being in a swimming pool, but frolicking in fresh water that may be polluted and contain more bacteria – such as lakes, ponds, rivers and oceans – can increase your risk.
Swimmer’s ear can also be caused by:
- Diminished earwax. Just because you think it’s gross doesn’t mean it’s bad stuff. Ear wax acts as a protectant against bacteria and fungi. If you lose earwax when cleaning ears – or when there’s too much water in there – it can irritate the inner ear’s delicate skin.
- Ear injuries. The old phrase “never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear” is good advice. You can cause damage your ear canal when you use things like cotton swabs, bobby pins or paper clips in your ear to retrieve ear wax.
- Skin conditions. Individuals with psoriasis or eczema in the ear canal are at higher risk of developing swimmer’s ear.
- Chemicals. When hair products like sprays, gels and dye get into your ear canal, it can increase your risk of infection.
- Using earbuds (or hearing aids). Dirt or other substances on those little devices can lead to infection.
Are ear infections more common in children?
Anyone can get an ear infection, but children get them more often than adults. Five out of six children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Children’s Eustachian tubes – the opening that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and throat – are short and more easily allow bacteria and viruses to find their way into the middle ear. The tiny tubes are also usually horizontal, which makes it more difficult for fluid to drain out of the ear.
That said, ear infections aren’t just for kids. About 20 percent of ear infections happen in adults.
How do I know if have an ear infection?
Symptoms of swimmer’s ear may include:
- Symptoms of swimmer’s ear may include:
- An earache or pain when tugging on the ear.
- Itching inside the ear.
- Swelling and redness of the outer ear.
- Ear drainage.
- A feeling of fullness or blockage in the ear.
- Swollen lymph nodes around the ear or upper neck.
- Temporary hearing loss or decreased hearing.
- Slight fever.
Middle ear infections can cause a wider range of symptoms, especially in children. You can learn more about middle ear infections, including symptoms, home treatment and when to seek medical care here.
What other ear issues are common in the summer?
Summer is also the season for other risks that can cause ear pain, pressure and damage, including:
- Seasonal colds and allergies. When you have a sinus infection, allergy or cold, your mucus production goes into overdrive. That can cause Eustachian tubes to swell, making it harder to drain fluid.
- Airline travel. The screaming baby in bulkhead – which may be yours – isn’t trying to ruin your summer vacation for the fun of it. Some individuals are sensitive to changes in air pressure, which can cause ear discomfort and pain. It’s most likely to happen in kids because of their smaller Eustachian tubes. If you or your little one is prone to ear stuffiness or pain when flying, trying swallowing or chewing gum during takeoff and landing.
- A little too much water fun. Some water-related activities may lead to a burst eardrum. Sudden changes in ear pressure (like diving into the water) or direct trauma (think cannon ball gone wrong) can cause a rupture.
- Loud noises. Summer means fireworks and music festivals. Over time, repeated exposure to these seasonal staples can damage your hearing. Even exposure to a single loud noise can cause hearing loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Don’t miss out on the fun, but make sure you bring along the ear plugs or over-the-ear muffs for little ones.
How can I prevent ear infections?
Here are some of the most effective ways to prevent summer ear infections:
- Tilt your head and thoroughly dry ears after being in the water.
- Use a hair dryer set on low to remove remaining moisture.
- Wear a swim cap or clean ear plugs to protect ears in the water.
- Wear a shower cap when you shower.
- When you wash your hair, place cotton balls in your ears to reduce the amount of water in your ears.
- Don’t swim in polluted water.
- Never stick anything into your ear canal.
What’s the safest way to clean my ears?
Your ears do an awesome job of cleaning themselves and really don’t need any extra care. Your body produces ear wax to lubricate and protect your ears. It also has antibacterial properties and acts like a filter to keep dirt and dust from going deep inside your ear canal.
The best way to tend to your ears is to simply clean the outside with a washcloth placed on your finger. You should never put anything in your ear canal – including cotton swabs. It cannot only damage your ear drum, but it can also prompt your ears to make more wax.
If you have excess buildup of wax that affects your hearing or causes pain, itchiness or ringing in your ear, don’t try to tackle it on your own. Let a health care clinician remove it safely.
When should I visit urgent care for an ear problem?
Swimmer’s ear isn’t a serious condition, but an infection won’t go away on its own. If left untreated, the infection can spread and become severe. Even if you have mild symptoms, you should seek medical treatment.
If you suspect you have swimmer’s ear or a middle ear infection, Indigo Urgent Care is available in person and online to make sure your summer stays on track. We’re here 8 am to 8 pm, every day. Virtual and in-person appointments are available the same day or the next day with our easy online booking and registration.
Your Indigo clinician will evaluate your symptoms and use an otoscope to examine the inside of your ear to help make a diagnosis. If you do have an infection, you’ll receive recommendations for at-home treatment or get a prescription for ear drops or antibiotics, if needed.
If wax is contributing to your ear pain, your clinician will prescribe wax-softening eardrops or flush out wax using an ear lavage kit, if necessary.
Learn more about when to get treatment for an ear infection.
If you have any of the following symptoms along with your earache, it’s a good idea to visit your nearest emergency department for evaluation and treatment:
- Swelling or a knot that has formed behind or under your ear
- Difficulty moving parts of your face
- Weakness or lethargy
- Sudden high fever
- Prolonged dizziness
- Loss of balance
- Extreme headaches
Ear pain and ear infections are more serious in infants. Seek immediate medical care your child is under 6 months old and shows signs of ear pain.