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Activities like swimming and surfing can be enjoyable and healthy, but they can damage the ears and increase the risk of hearing loss due to repeated water exposure. However, people who love spending time in the water can take certain steps to protect their hearing and avoid serious ear conditions linked to these activities.

What Hearing Issues Can Result from Time Spent in the Water?

Bodies of water, including swimming pools, lakes, and oceans, often contain a countless number of organisms that can enter the ears and affect hearing. Additionally, spending lots of time in the water can wash away protective earwax, leaving the ears vulnerable to dryness and infection. Over time, water sports and activities like swimming can increase the risk for hearing problems, including hearing loss.

The most common hearing issues that result from time spent in the water are swimmer’s ear and surfer’s ear. However, despite their names, these hearing issues can affect anyone who spends an ample amount of time in the water, even if they aren’t swimming or surfing.

Swimmer’s Ear

Also known as otitis externa, swimmer’s ear is an infection in the outer ear canal. It occurs when water stays inside the ear to trigger the growth of bacteria. According to a 2019 study published in the medical journal Deutsches Ärzteblatt international, this ear condition is known as swimmer’s ear because it is five times more common in swimmers than in other populations.

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear usually start mild and can progress if it isn’t treated right away. Swimmer’s ear symptoms may include:

  • Itching in the ear canal
  • Redness inside the ear
  • Discomfort that occurs when pulling on the outer ear or pushing on the tiny bump in front of the ear
  • Drainage of clear, odorless fluid
  • Decreased or muffled hearing
  • Swelling of the outer ear
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever

When not treated, swimmer’s ear can lead to complications, including temporary hearing loss, chronic outer ear infection, and deep tissue infection. It may also damage bones and cartilage in the lower part of the skull and cause a widespread infection that can reach nearby nerves and the brain.

The goal of treatment for swimmer’s ear is to clean the ears and clear the infection before it progresses. This may be performed using an ear curette or suction device and medications that fight bacteria and reduce inflammation.

Surfer’s Ear

Surfer’s ear is also known as external auditory exostoses. This hearing issue is a slowly progressive disease that occurs when chronic exposure to cold water causes extra bones to grow in the ear canal. When this happens, water gets trapped in the ear canal and causes symptoms including:

  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Drainage of fluid from the ear
  • Stuffy ears
  • Hearing loss

This ear condition can affect anyone who is regularly exposed to cold water. It happens most commonly in surfers, though it can also affect those who swim, dive, and kayak.

Surfer’s ear that is not treated can lead to complications, including a ruptured eardrum and conductive hearing loss. Treatment for surfer’s ear usually involves cleaning the outer ear canal to remove any trapped debris and water. In severe cases, surgery may be performed to remove excess bones from the ear.

Ways to Avoid Ear Infections from Water

People who spend lots of time in the water can often prevent ear infections like swimmer’s ear and surfer’s ear with routine maintenance. This includes:

  • Checking for earwax buildup and having it removed by an audiologist
  • Using an ear conditioner that prevents skin in the ear canal from becoming too dry
  • Using an ear dryer device to safely dry the ears after spending time in the water
  • Wearing swim plugs that prevent excess water from getting into the ears
  • Seeing an audiologist regularly for checkups and cleaning

At Sonora Hearing Care, we understand how important it is to maintain your hearing if you enjoy spending lots of time at the beach or in the water. Our audiologists are more than happy to talk with you about protecting hearing in the water. Contact us today at (520) 881-8740 to schedule a consultation and learn more about our hearing services.