Acute otitis externa, or swimmer's ear, happens when water stays in the ear too long, which creates a perfect environment for bacteria to grow.
"Swimming is a significant risk factor, especially in fresh water," Kara Jones-Schubart, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing, told HealthDay News. "For most people, swimmer's ear is a one-time occurrence, but for others, it can take a more chronic form."
Treatment for the condition varies depending on the severity of the case, but often includes antibiotic ear drops.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers these prevention tips for swimmer's ear: wear earplugs, custom fit ear-molds or a swim cap while swimming; use a towel to dry your ears after swimming; tilt and shake your head to drain water from your ears after swimming; and to use a hair dryer on a very low setting while holding it at least a foot away from the affected ear to dry it out after swimming.
The Mayo Clinic suggests an at-home preventive treatment for swimmer's ear "if you know you don't have a punctured eardrum." A solution of one part white vinegar to one part rubbing alcohol is poured by one-teaspoon amounts into each ear and then allowed to drain out. This will help prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi that can cause swimmer's ear, Mayo says. Similar over-the-counter products are available.
More cautiously, the CDC says it is important to consult a health-care provider before using any kind of ear drops for swimmer's ear. Like Mayo, it cautions that ear drops should not be used by people with damaged ear drums, but also adds that people with ear tubes, outer ear infections, and ear drainage should not use ear drops.
In addition, the CDC points out that it's important to not place any object in the ear canal, like cotton swabs or cotton balls, as they can push material deeper into the ear canal. It also suggest that you should also ask the pool operator if the disinfectant and pH levels are checked at least twice per day, noting that properly disinfected pools with correct pH levels are less likely to spread germs.
Swimmer's ear is not the same as the common childhood ear infection, otitis media,which is an infection of the middle ear. The CDC says that if you can wiggle the outer ear without pain, it is probably not swimmer's ear.