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Department of Otolaryngology Health-Related Library

Swimmer's Ear and Itchy Ears

What is "Swimmer's Ear?" How do you avoid it?

"Swimmer's Ear" is one of a number of names for infection of the outer ear canal. It is also called "fungus" of the ear or "jungle ear" (so named by soldiers who suffered it fighting in the South Pacific). Sometimes it really is caused by a fungus, but more often, especially in painful cases, it is caused by one of nature's common bacteria.

When water gets into your ear, it brings with it those bacteria or fungus particles. Usually the water runs back out; the ear dries out, and the bacteria and fungi disappear. But sometimes the water remains trapped in the ear canal, and the skin gets soggy. Then the bacteria and fungi grow, flourish and infect the ear.

First the ear feels blocked and may itch. Soon the ear canal becomes swollen, sometimes swells shut, starts draining a runny, milky liquid, and becomes very painful. It is also very tender to touch, especially on the tragus (the triangular piece of cartilage in front of the ear canal). When the infection gets to this stage, a doctor's treatment is needed. This is also true if glands in the neck become swollen.

However, the entire sequence of events can be easily prevented if you dry out your ears with rubbing alcohol whenever you feel that water is trapped in them. If your ear feels moist or blocked after swimming, hairwashing, showering, etc., put your head over with that ear up, pull the ear upwards and backwards and install a dropperful of alcohol into it. Wiggle your ear to get the alcohol to go all the way in, then turn your head and let it drain out. The alcohol absorbs the water, helps dry out the ear, and may even kill bacteria and fungi.

If the alcohol feels too harsh to your ear, mix it half and half with white vinegar. (Vinegar contains acetic acid, which kills the bacteria and fungus. It is a remedy our grandfathers used to use.) Your druggist can supply you with a dropper bottle for your alcohol or alcohol-vinegar mixture. Or you can buy any of the inexpensive preparations already packaged and sold without prescription; Ear Magic, Aqua Ear, Swim Ear, etc.

Caution: If you already have an ear infection, or if you have a perforated, ruptured, or punctured eardrum, or if you have had ear surgery, you should consult a doctor before going swimming and before you use these alcohol or vinegar type ear drops.

Why do ears itch?

An itchy ear is a maddening symptom. Sometimes it comes from a fungus (especially in acute cases), but more often it is a chronic dermatitis (skin inflammation) of the ear canal. One type is seborrheic dermatitis, a condition similar to dandruff in the scalp; the ear wax is dry, flaky and abundant. Some patients with this problem will do well to decrease their intake of foods that aggravate it, such as greasy foods, carbohydrates (sugars and starches), and chocolate. Doctors often prescribe an oily or cortisone-containing eardrop to use at bedtime whenever the ears itch. There is no long-term cure, but it can be kept under control. Itchy ears in a few patients are caused by allergies that require specific medical treatment.

Patients with itchy, flaky ears or ears that accumulate wax are very likely to develop "swimmer's ear". They should be especially conscientious about using the alcohol ear drops as described above whenever water gets trapped in their ears. They also do well to get their ears cleaned out each year before the swimming season starts.

What about gnats, insects and foreign objects?

Of the many types of insects that can get into ears, gnats, moths, and roaches are the most common. Gnats get tangled in the wax and cannot fly out. Bigger insects cannot turn around; neither can they crawl backwards. They keep on struggling, and their motion can be painful and frightening.

Gnats are easily washed out with warm water from a rubber bulb syringe. (Remember to dry the ear out afterwards with alcohol drops). For a big insect, the first step is to fill the ear with mineral oil, which plugs the breathing pores of the insect and kills it. It takes 5 to 10 minutes or so. Then see the doctor to get the insect removed.

Beads, pencil lead, erasers, bits of plastic toys, and dried beans are common objects that children put into their ears. Removal is a delicate task - one for the doctor to perform.

Reprinted with permission from:

the American Academy of Otolaryngology
Head and Neck Surgery, Inc.
1101 Vermont Avenue NW, Suite 302
Washington, D.C. 20005