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Swimmer's ear on holiday abroad

I’m currently on holiday in Spain and yesterday evening after being in the pool for a large part of the day I felt a blocked feeling in my ear. After doing some research I think it’s from the water and my inner ear may be blocked with wax. I didn’t realise you weren’t meant to use buds so tried to clean it this way. I’ve tried to do all the home remedies to clear it but it still feels blocked. It doesn’t feel like there is water in it but it feels full and is impairing my hearing. Will it pass on its own or should I visit the local pharmacy? If so, what will unblock it? Or can I wait until I’m back in the UK – I’m conscious of a potential infection. I’m also assuming I should not go back in the pool?

1 May 2019

From what you describe it sounds like you may have swimmer’s ear. This usually passes over a period of a few days but it is possible for infection to develop if the water/wax are not removed.

Use of cotton buds is not recommended as this can potentially push the wax and water further into your ear, as well as potentially perforating the eardrum. Instead try one or more of the following suggestions.

Tips to help remove water and wax from the ear

  • Pulling the ear lobe and tilting the head sideways (with the affected ear pointing downwards!) to see if gravity will take its course and drain the ear canal.
  • Yawning, chewing and blowing to help ease the tension in the eustachian tubes and help clear the passages.
  • Creating a vacuum by placing your hand over the ear then gently pressing and releasing to help draw the water out.
  • Use a hairdryer to help draw moisture out of the ear - hold the dryer about a foot from your ear and use airflow for cycles of approximately 30 seconds.
  • Applying a heat compress to the ear again to help open the eustachian tubes.
  • Steam inhalations, again to help open the eustachian tubes.
  • Using drops:
    - olive oil to help soften wax
    - vinegar and alcohol to help break down wax
    - hydrogen peroxide, again to breakdown wax
    - over the counter medications to breakdown and soften wax and help reduce inflammation, e.g. Otex, Earex, Otodex, Otodine and sodium bicarbonate preparations,

If these don’t help and symptoms persist, it would be advisable to seek the advice of a pharmacist.

If your symptoms get worse or you experience pain and fever or swelling this would indicate that the ear has become infected and you should arrange an appointment with a doctor at the earliest opportunity. This could be with a local doctor or, if you prefer to speak to a UK registered GP, AXA Health members can do so via our AXA Doctor at Hand service.

Doctor at Hand gives you access to an extended (up to 20 minutes) GP consultation by video or by phone, from anywhere in the world, day or night. Appointments are available at short notice – usually within an hour of your preferred timeslot – and if you need a prescription it can be delivered to your door, at home or abroad. If there is infection present, antibiotics may be needed and it would be advisable to start treatment as soon as possible to calm the infection before your flight home.

Ear infection and flying

It’s best to avoid flying if you have an ear or sinus infection. This is because the associated swelling of the ear canal interferes with the mechanism that equalises pressure between the inner and outer ear during take-off and landing (the feeling of your ears ‘popping’), which can, in some instances, cause the eardrum to burst.

Flying with blocked ears

Hopefully your blocked ears will clear up before you’re due to return to the UK, either by themselves, or with antibiotic treatment, if there is an infection present. However if there are still signs of a blockage, take a look at our article Blocked ears and flying for some tips you can try to make your trip home more comfortable. Finally, here are some recommendations regarding swimming/showering for the remainder of the holiday.

Tips for looking after your ear health on holiday

• Avoid water sports, swimming and scuba diving
• Try to avoid getting further water in your ears
• Try to empty ears of water immediately afterwards
• Consider using swimming ear plugs.

Wishing you all the best for the rest of your stay and a safe journey home.

Answered by the Health at Hand team.


Sources and further reading

Blocked ear and flying - Ask the Expert
Very blocked ears - Ask the Expert
Earwax build up  - NHS factsheet
Glue ear (in children) - NHS factsheet
Ear infections - NHS factsheet

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