Home » Practical Information » Health and Medical Concerns

Swimmers Ear/Tropical Ear

Swimmer's ear or tropical ear is an inflammation of the ear canal due to bacterial or fungal infection. In other words, they are just vernacular terms for otitis externa, an outer ear infection.

This infection can sometimes be as a result of using objects such as cotton swabs in the ear canal which irritate tissue and remove the protective wax. Infection can then develop following prolonged exposure to water from swimming or bathing. In the tropics, it is more prevalent because of the higher average temperature of water sources which are a good growth medium for bacteria/fungi. It is more prevalent in some areas because of water contamination found in rivers, estuaries, dams, or harbours where effluent may be an issue. It is also common in divers as a result of water being trapped in the ear canal.

Symptoms range from the ear feeling blocked and itchy to extreme pain, the ear canal swelling shut and purulent discharge. Lymph nodes in the neck may also become swollen. If these symptoms occur, you should consult a doctor as you may require gentle ear irrigation or suctioning of debris to cure the problem.

For people prone to swimmer's ear such as regular swimmers/divers, the disorder can be prevented by using antiseptic eardrops following any swimming or diving event. Such eardrops are inexpensive and sold without prescription under various trade names.

If your ear doctor signs off on it, you could create your own eardrops for use after swimming. Many doctors recommend using medical alcohol as a major ingredient, as it absorbs water and may even kill bacteria and fungi. Another effective ingredient is white vinegar, which should be mixed in equal proportions with alcohol. I personally have successfully used clear merthiolate as an alternative agent, though I have not seen this agent for sale in Indonesia.

For regular surface swimmers (not divers), the use of earplugs is highly recommended. I find the use of Prestik or 'ticky tack' (used for sticking pictures on the wall) a good alternative; it blocks the outer canal adequately and is also easy to remove.

If you have any further questions about medical concerns in Indonesia, see the Ask the Experts.

We trust this information will assist you in making correct choices regarding your health and welfare. However, it is not intended to be a substitute for personalized advice from your medical adviser.

Our appreciation to Dr. Paul Vandewalle of International SOS, an AEA Company who researched and contributed this article in response to an inquiry on the Expat Forum.