There are two reasons you might find yourself reading this right now. You’re either thinking about taking up scuba diving and are doing research on potential risks, or sitting inside a hotel, missing out on the day’s dive because your ear feels clogged up and painful. No matter which one of those is true, you’re trying to get to the bottom of it.
Yes, scuba diving can cause ear infections, the most common of which is ‘swimmers ear’. This occurs when the outer ear canal gets infected from excess moisture which then allows bacteria to enter, commonly causing pain and swelling.
What Causes Ear Infections
Here’s something you might not know though. Otitis Externa, the medical name for swimmers ear, is not caused by bacteria in the water. The problem isn’t the water getting into your ear canal, as much as it is that the water is staying in there.
What I mean is that the ones to blame for your ear pain are the naturally occurring bacteria already living inside your ear canal. When you stay for long periods underwater, your skin cells swell and pull apart, allowing the bacteria to get under your skin. Here they find the perfect environment to multiply like crazy.
If left untreated, they can keep multiplying, and the infection can spread to your lymph nodes. Once that happens, it’ll be painful to move your jaw, and diving is 100% out of the question. Your only course of action is antibiotics.
How to Prevent Ear Infections
So the answer to our initial question is that diving CAN cause ear infections. However, not all of us are equally susceptible to it. Some divers will go for months, even years, without having any trouble. For others, their first case of swimmers ear will occur soon after their first dive.
If you know you’re likely to get it or simply don’t want to take any risks, there are a few steps you can take:
- Keep your ears dry! Dry them thoroughly after every diving session.
- Don’t overclean. Excessive cleaning with q tips can create scratches and tears, which allow the bacteria to get under your skin.
- Avoid clogs. Long exposure to water can cause your ear wax to become liquid and re-solidify as a clog in your ear canal, which can trap infections. If your ear feels clogged, you should see a doctor or use over the counter products to dissolve it. DO NOT USE Q TIPS! You’ll push it further in.
How Do I Unclog My Ears After Scuba Diving?
Unfortunately, keeping your ears dry after a dive is easier said than done. Water droplets can be absurdly stubborn when it comes to leaving your ear canal. You’ll know your ears aren’t completely dry if you hear an annoying “whooshing” sound when you move around.
In these cases, there are a few courses of action you can take to get them out:
- The first and most common is just letting gravity do the work. Tilt your head to the side and pull down lightly on your earlobe, by straightening your ear canal you create an easier path for the water to follow. I always jump up and down when I do this, I don’t know if it works or not, but it seems appropriate.
- Put your blowdryer on the lowest setting, hold it at least a foot away from your ear and point it at your ear canal.
- If all else fails, use over the counter drying drops. These usually consist of a mix of isopropyl alcohol and anhydrous glycerine, these will cause the water to evaporate and should solve any issues.
Can I Wear Earplugs While Scuba Diving?
After explaining how infections come to happen, a lot of newbie divers come to a conclusion. Isn’t it much easier to avoid water coming into your ear canal, rather than trying to get it out later? Earplugs seem like an obvious answer to the problem.
In an ideal world, they would be. In our’s though, they are pretty much the opposite. Instead of risking an infection, you put yourself at risk of ear barotrauma. Sounds scary, right? Well, it is, ear barotrauma occurs when there is a pressure difference between the inside and outside of your ear. Its symptoms can range from mild aches and ringing to ear-bleeding and even hearing loss.
Let me explain, when you dive with earplugs in, you create an air pocket where the pressure cannot be equalized. The main concern is that the earplug can be wedged into the ear canal because of external pressure, causing external barotrauma.
To avoid this, some manufacturers have developed “vented” earplugs, which are said to equalize the pressure without letting water in. However, these claims have never been independently tested so I can’t recommend them.
So… Can Scuba Diving Damage Your Ears?
Well, yes and no. Any extreme sport has an inherent risk and diving is no exception. However, as long as you are conscientious about safety practices you should be totally fine. Be sure to keep your ears clean and dry after every dive and the chances of infection are very slim. Even if you do end up with an ear infection, in most cases they are nothing but an annoyance. Nonetheless, if things progress be sure to contact your doctor.