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Water most commonly gets trapped in the ear after swimming, but it can happen at other times too. The water will usually drain out of the ear naturally, but if it does not, a type of infection called swimmer's ear may develop.

A person who has water trapped in their ear may experience a tickling sensation that extends from the ear to the jaw or throat. They may also have problems with hearing and sounds may be muffled.

People should avoid inserting anything into the ear canal, such as pens, fingers, bobby pins, or cotton-tipped swabs. Doing so can damage the delicate lining of the ear canal and increase the risk of an ear infection. There are a number of safe ways to get water out of your ears.

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Wearing earplugs when swimming may help to prevent water becoming trapped in the ear.

Here are a number of ways in which people can safely remove water that is trapped in their ears.

  1. Tugging or jiggling the earlobe while tilting the head down toward the shoulder. A person could also try shaking their head from side to side.
  2. Creating a vacuum by tilting the head sideways and keeping a palm tightly cupped over the ear might help. By rapidly flattening and cupping the hand against the ear, a vacuum will be created that might pull the water out.
  3. Applying a warm compress to the ear. The person should leave the compress in place for about 30 seconds, remove it for a minute, and then repeat four or five times. Lying down on the affected side of the body may also help the water to drain.
  4. Evaporating the trapped water in the ear using a blow dryer. A person should set the blow dryer to its lowest setting and hold it about 1 foot away from the ear. By tugging the earlobe down while moving the dryer in a back-and-forth motion, the heat from the dryer may evaporate the trapped water.
  5. Combining half alcohol and half vinegar in ear drops may be effective if these other remedies do not work. The alcohol helps evaporate the water, while the vinegar may help prevent bacteria from growing. Using a sterile dropper, a person should put 3 or 4 drops of the solution into their ear. After 30 seconds, they should tilt their head sideways to allow the solution to drain out.
  6. Diluting hydrogen peroxide ear drops with water. Again, a person should use 3-4 drops of the solution. After 2-3 minutes, they should tilt the affected side of the head, which will allow the fluid to drain out.

A person can make a warm compress by soaking a washcloth in warm water, wringing it out so that it does not drip, and holding it against the affected ear while tilting the head downward.

No one should use either of the methods that involve ear drops if they already have an ear infection, a punctured eardrum, or ear tubes.

A good way to prevent water from becoming trapped in the ear is to wear a cap or ear plugs when bathing or swimming, or using a dry towel to clean the ears after coming out of the water.

Doctors recommend that people who play water sports or who are frequently in water should wear ear plugs. Shaking the head from side to side after getting out of the water also helps to drain water from the ears.

There is a selection of ear plugs available for purchase online.

If water is trapped in the ear for too long, a person may develop an infection. The infection is generally caused by bacteria that are found in polluted water.

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If an infection is suspected or a person has hearing difficulties, a doctor should be seen.

People are more at risk of swimmer's ear if they swim in water that contains high levels of bacteria, such as a lake. Swimming pools are generally safer as the bacteria and pH levels are usually checked regularly.

The risk of developing swimmer's ear also increases for people who already have a chronic skin condition of the ear, such as psoriasis or eczema.

The ear has several defense mechanisms to protect against infections, but if these defenses are overwhelmed then infection can occur. The following can create conditions that promote infection:

  • Excess moisture in the ear
  • Scratches or cuts in the ear canal
  • Allergies to hair products or jewelry

Infection and other complications

If an infection develops, a person may experience intense itching and increasing pain. The ear may become too painful to touch. A person may also experience fluid drainage or a discharge of pus. A severe infection may lead to fever, swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, and pain in the face, neck, or side of the head.

Complications of swimmer's ear may include temporary hearing difficulties and pain. Rare complications include long-term infection, deep tissue infection, bone and cartilage damage, and infection that spreads to the brain or nerves.

A doctor should be consulted if the problem persists for several days. It is particularly important to do so if the ear becomes painful and inflamed as it may be infected. Ear infections can be serious if not treated, as they can lead to hearing loss or damage to cartilage and bone.

If the pain is severe or a fever is present, a person should consult a doctor immediately.

It may be necessary to consult an ear specialist if:

  • An ear infection has not gone away 10-14 days after using antibiotic ear drops
  • The person has lost their hearing
  • The infections persistently reoccur

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommend that a person should not attempt to remove earwax from their ears, as it is the earwax that helps to protect the ear from infection. Anyone who thinks that their ear canal is blocked by wax should consult a doctor.