Playing in the water can be fun for people of all ages. While summer is a great time to enjoy this activity to its fullest, all of the splashing around can occasionally lead to a condition known as “water in the ear.” Symptoms include a muffled feeling of fullness in the ear canal, or a sensation that water is jostling around in the ears.
When the water doesn’t trickle out on its own, it may lead to a case of otitis externa, an ear infection also known as swimmer’s ear.
Why does water get stuck in my ears after swimming?
Water can remain trapped in the ear for any number of reasons, including a narrow ear canal or because it’s trapped by something inside the ear canal, such as excessive earwax or another foreign object.
Does it happen to everyone or are some people more prone to it?
Kids and adults who spend a lot of time in the water are most at risk; however, getting water stuck in your ears can happen anytime you go under the water. Sometimes inverting yourself, like during a flip or handstand, can make water go in.
Is it risky when water is stuck in ears?
Sometimes. Your ears secrete a waxy, water repellent-substance known as cerumen (earwax), so most of the time water will gently trickle out on its own. When it doesn’t, bacteria may begin to grow and cause swimmer’s ear.
Favorable environments for bacterial growth include wet and humid conditions, scratches or abrasions inside the ear canal or reactions from allergies and skin conditions.
Initial symptoms of swimmer’s ear may be mild and include:
- Itching and redness inside the ear canal
- Mild discomfort
- Drainage of clear, odorless fluid
If you experience these symptoms, make an appointment to see your family doctor immediately. If water has been stuck in your ears for days or even weeks, also see your doctor.
How do you prevent it?
If you’ve got water in your ears after you swim or bathe, you can wear over-the-counter earplugs, or talk to your hearing healthcare professional about purchasing a set of ear plugs designed for use in the water. These plugs may be more expensive than the typical foam ear plugs purchased at the drugstore; however, they can be custom-fit your ears and are washable and reusable.
Tips to get water out of your ears
If you do happen to experience an episode of water in the ears, don’t insert anything inside your ear canal to help it drain. Using a cotton swab or other object—even your finger— may push obstructions deeper into the canal and puncture your eardrum. It can also scratch away the protective waxy layer inside your ear canal, providing an opening for bacteria to grow.
Instead, try these tips:
- Tip your head toward the affected ear and gently tug on your earlobe.
- Move your jaw by yawning or chewing gum. Then tilt your affected ear toward the ground.
- Take a breath, pinch your nose with your fingers, close your mouth and gently exhale to open your Eustachian tubes.
- Lay on your side for a few minutes with the affected ear resting on a soft, cotton towel.
- Cup the palm of your hand securely over your ear. Tilt your head toward the ground as you gently push and release your palm back and forth to create suction.
- Use heat. Rest your affected ear on a warm compress or blow warm air from a hair dryer (low setting) into the ear canal.
- Use hydrogen peroxide ear drops, available in most drug stores, or make your own with equal parts vinegar and alcohol. Please note: Only try this option if you do NOT have an ear infection, perforated ear drum, or eardrum tubes.
If these techniques don’t work or if you feel pain or develop a fever, contact a medical professional immediately.
Monitor your ear health
Enjoy all the sounds every season brings by making your hearing health a priority. Schedule annual visits for hearing evaluations and, if you’re diagnosed with hearing loss, follow the prescribed course of treatment sooner rather than later. Visit Healthy Hearing’s directory to find a hearing center in your community.