Monday, November 9, 2009

Apple #419: Clogged Ears

The Weeki Wachee mermaids and I have this in common at least: ears getting clogged from swimming.

What's happening, more or less, when you get water in your ears -- it fills the outer ear canal.
(Diagram from

When I was a kid I swam in our community pool and in the lake all the time. A few other kids had all sorts of problems with their ears, and they had to wear ear plugs or even get tubes put in their ears. Proud little me who didn't know any better thought they were just wussies. I never had any trouble with my ears, same as I didn't have trouble with water going up my nose unlike other kids did, and I thought the two were equally as preventable.

Now that I'm older, I get water clogging my ears all the time. I do about five strokes of freestyle and whoosh, my ear fills with water. The right one especially. I have a theory that the shape of my ear canal has changed as my body has gotten bigger and now they let in water more easily. Since they make ear plugs that are sized differently for children and adults, I suspect my theory may be correct.

Regardless of whether my theory is true or not, the fact remains that I have to shake the water out of my ears a lot more often than I used to. So here are some tips about how to deal with water in your ears:

  • The first thing to try when you get water in your ears is to jerk your head sharply sideways toward the ear that is clogged. About five or six tries usually works the water loose.
  • If that doesn't shake it loose, some people say to do that while hopping on the opposite foot. If the water is in your right ear, jerk your head to the right and hop on your left foot. I have never been able to get that to work for me, though, because I'm so busy trying to keep my balance that I can't get a strong enough jerk to work the water loose out of my ear.
  • Other people say to lie down with your clogged ear against the pillow and wait. Take a nap for an hour or two. The water will drain out on its own.
  • If you don't have that much patience, there are some other items you can employ.
  • DO NOT USE Q-TIPS! All they do is shove ear wax deeper into your ear and wind up creating knobs of wax that can obscure your hearing and may have to be removed by a doctor.

Another reason Q-tips are bad: you can push them in too far and pierce your eardrum, like this. Ouch!
(Image from the Morning Mash-Up)

  • One of the best things to use in your ears is a solution of half vinegar, half rubbing alcohol. This is actually a solution recommended for ear infections, but it helps to dislodge water clogs, too.
  • The vinegar/rubbing alcohol solution works because it's acidic. Ear wax is naturally acidic and it helps keep bacteria and fungus at bay. Lots of swimming and showering can reduce the acidity in your ear and allow that stuff to start to grow (swimmer's ear, by the way, is an itchy bacterial infection). The vinegar/rubbing alcohol help to replace some of the acidity that's been lost and can fight those nasties that want to take root in your ear.
Equal parts of this

and this

  • Here's how to use it:
  • You'll only need a few drops so mix equal parts vinegar and rubbing alcohol -- say, a half teaspoon of each.
  • Make sure it's at body temperature. Some people's ears are very sensitive to cold solutions, so cold vinegar & rubbing alcohol could be painful. It can also help to use this solution just after a nice warm steamy shower.
  • Put just a few drops -- it's easiest if you have an eardropper -- into the affected ear and let it slosh around in there a bit.
  • Then tilt your head upright and wait. Fairly soon, the clogged feeling in your ear should go away.
  • The reason this solution works is mainly because of the alcohol. Alcohol evaporates more quickly than water, and it also takes some of the water with it as it evaporates. So even though it seems counter intuitive, adding this particular liquid to your ear will actually help get rid of the other liquid that's already in your ear that you can't get out.
  • You can also buy a product called Swim-Ear. It already comes in a bottle with a dropper nozzle so you don't have to worry about finding an eardropper for it. But it's 95% rubbing alcohol (a.k.a. isopropyl alcohol) and 5% glycerin, which is a soapy fat that will help the alcohol feel less harsh in your ear. Since Swim-Ear costs $3 to $7, and an entire bottle of rubbing alcohol and an entire bottle of vinegar together cost around $3, I don't think the Swim-Ear is worth the price.
  • If you have ear tubes or if you have a ruptured eardrum, or if you have any scratch in the skin of your ear, these solutions will hurt! If that's the case, you can use a vinegar-only solution. It may take longer to dry the moisture, but it will sting less and its acidity will still help fight the bacteria.
  • Some people also recommend a few drops of hydrogen peroxide in the ear, for the same purpose. It'll probably fizz like mad and that may also be uncomfortable.
  • If you don't want to risk any stinging solutions at all, you could also use an ear dryer. These are little dryers, specially made to aim into the ear canal and, depending on the type of ear dryer, blow cool or warm air into your ear to help the moisture evaporate faster.

Dryears blows little puffs of cool air from a squeezy-bulb and sells for about $15.

Mack's EarDryer is battery-powered and has 5 disposable plastic tips, which means it can be used 5 times, and it's approved for all ages, even children as young as a year old. You can order it through Amazon for the low low price of $63.

  • Or you could use a hair dryer. The hair dryer won't target the air directly into the ear canal the way those ear dryers will, but it can help. But be sure to put it at the lowest setting or else you could over-dry the sensitive, thin skin on your ears and maybe even burn it.
  • It's possible that either the ear dryer or the hair dryer could overdry the wax in your ear, in which case you'd become susceptible to bacteria and fungus, in which case you'll have to use the vinegar/alcohol solution. So probably it's best to start with that.
  • I'm going to say it again: DO NOT USE Q-TIPS! Or anything pointy like them!
  • To prevent the clog in the first place, you can use ear plugs designed for swimming. Some are made for children, some are made for teen-agers, others are for adults. Some are even moldable to fit the shape of your ear, and those are less likely to swim away from you. Some are made to go over the outside of the ear canal and come with a strap that goes around the head. This variety keeps those plugs in place but really makes your kid look like a total nerd.
  • Ear plugs, by the way, can still pack the wax into your ear just as Q-tips do, but because they're larger and more blunt, they can't push all the way into the ear canal. Still, it's a good idea if you use ear plugs on a regular basis to flush out your ears now and then with a mineral oil solution, to keep that wax from balling up in there.
  • Regardless of what kind of ear plugs you use, do not use them at depths any lower than 10 feet. The increased water pressure at that depth will cause the ear canal to close around the ear plugs and that could get very painful.
  • If you have an infection -- itching, swelling, pus, etc. -- go see your doctor. Lots of different things can cause ear infections, and a doctor needs to look at it to see what it is and give you the appropriate treatment.

[EDIT:] I found out that the size of the internal workings of your ear doesn't increase in size much after your teen years.  But the way your Eustachian tube functions -- how well it opens and closes -- can change as you age.

Related entries: ear wax and wax removal, broken eardrum

Dealing with Swimmer's Ear - Even If You Fon't Swim, WebMDblog, August 19, 2008
dealmac forum, How do I unclog ear after swimming? August 2005
Article Insider, Water Clogged Ears
Advanced Otolaryngology, What Is Earwax?
MayoClinic, Swimmer's Ear
Physics Forums, Does alcohol really help to evaporate water?

Timothy C. Hain,, Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great info and tips! Nothing's worse than that feeling of water sloshing around in there.


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