When you’re shivering on a cool, rainy day, isn’t it great to daydream about white, sandy tropical beaches? Unfortunately, beach holidays may result in earaches and otitis externa – also known as ‘swimmer’s ear’ or ‘tropical ear’.

Using common sense before and during travel can make your vacation more enjoyable.

What Causes Swimmer’s Ear?

When the human body is functioning at peak efficiency, the ears have a slightly acidic balance and they are able to combat bacterial infections. However, water is usually neutral to slightly alkaline. When you introduce water into your ears, you change their healthy acidic environment. Additionally, if the water is dirty or contaminated, your ears can become a rich breeding ground for infection.

Pre-Travel Preparation

If you have experienced swimmer’s ear in the past, consult your doctor before you travel. Request a duplicate prescription – one copy for your pharmacist and one to take with you (for presenting at border crossings or airport security.)

Pack a set of swimmer’s earplugs. These soft, silicone-based plugs should be gently placed into your ears before you swim or shower. DO NOT USE THEM while participating in any watersports that take you MORE THAN A COUPLE OF FEET BELOW THE WATER’S SURFACE – like scuba diving, cliff jumping, etc. Water pressure at depth will compress the air in your ears. The plugs can become securely lodged, requiring medical intervention for removal – and might even cause permanent damage. Make sure that you clean and dry the plugs meticulously every time you use them.

Pack a hairdryer. This can be used to dry your ears after swimming or showering. Be sure to use the lowest heat setting – and test it carefully on your wrist to verify the temperature before you attempt to ‘blow dry’ your ears.

Other useful articles to pack in your suitcase include: rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol, a small bottle of white vinegar or distilled water, and an eyedropper. NEVER use cotton swabs to dry or clean your ears.

Folk Remedies

Drying your ears after water exposure will help to prevent swimmer’s ear. However, if you are a susceptible individual, consider one of the following treatments once your ears have been dried. The solutions can be dripped carefully into your ears (2-3 drops each) with an eyedropper or the tip of a clean tissue. Let the drops settle in the first ear for 5-10 minutes before you tilt your head to treat the second ear.

  • 50% rubbing alcohol/50% white vinegar mixture

  • Undiluted white or apple cider vinegar

  • Vinegar mixed 50% with distilled water

  • Vinegar mixed 50% with boiled, cooled water

  • Lemon juice

All of the above solutions are slightly acidic. Rubbing alcohol also assists with drying as it evaporates. In a pinch, you can even use a wedge of lemon. Heat it slightly if possible, then squeeze and dribble a bit of juice into each ear.

Some people report that warm olive oil helps to protect ears from water, and actually reduces earaches.

Extra Precautions

If you have ever had any kind of ear surgery (including tube insertions) or a perforated ear drum, never put liquid into your ears unless approved by your doctor. Please take a copy of this article to your doctor or pharmacist for endorsement before you try any of the remedies mentioned. The information presented here was gathered for my own personal use before a scuba vacation.

I am not a physician. However, I have been stuck on a liveaboard sailboat where I used a 50% isopropyl alcohol/50% white vinegar solution successfully to relieve symptoms until I could get to a doctor. The physician complimented me on my self-treatment, and told me to continue with it (while staying out of the water).

┬ęCopyright Kathy Steinemann: This article is free to publish only if this copyright notice, the byline, and the author’s note below (with active links) are included.

Kathy Steinemann