Getting water out of an ear?
July 31, 2006 10:09 PM   Subscribe

We went swimming two days ago. My boyfriend still has water in his ear, and the Swim-EAR (95% isopropyl alcohol, 5% glycerin) we got at the drug store hasn't helped. Is this normal? And what can he do to make his ear feel better?

I'm worried that he might have some sort of infection, because we were swimming in a quarry where the water was not terribly clean. Is this possible? He doesn't have any pain, just a constant sensation of water in one ear and muffled hearing on that side.1

And what else besides the ear drops might get the water out? He's tried shaking his head, popping his jaw, tugging his outer ear, using q-tips, and holding his head sideways, offending ear down, for long periods of time. Is it possible that all this poking has iritated his ear, making him feel like it's still clogged when it isn't?

Any wisdom would really be appreciated, because it is driving him nuts.
posted by bookish to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This is from a page out of my library, thanks google books!

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Not exactly what you are looking for, but it should help.
posted by bigmusic at 10:29 PM on July 31, 2006

try rolling the end of a tissue into a fine point and poking that in. try evaporating it with a hair dryer, or driving around with the window down on a really hot day, if you don't have a hair dryer but you do have a car and it's really, really hot. and dry.

try a doctor. s/he may be unwilling to syringe the wax out (i'm guessing an ear clogged with wax is the real problem) if it is infected, in which case it will probably mean more eardrops and a return trip to clean the wax out.
posted by Tixylix at 10:33 PM on July 31, 2006

Hydrogen peroxide. It's weird and tingly, but it'll clear him up, eventually.
posted by orthogonality at 10:38 PM on July 31, 2006

Go to a doctor.

I used to spend a lot of time in the ocean. On one occasion I found myself with the same symptoms that your boyfriend has. I went to a doc in the box, they irrigated my ears, and big hunk of ocean plant came out of my ears.
posted by rdr at 10:39 PM on July 31, 2006

Spend a while in a hot shower alternating directing the spray into the ear and draining it out.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 10:43 PM on July 31, 2006

Please do not do what MonkeySaltedNuts suggests as it will pretty much guarantee you an inner ear infection. Likewise with the q-tips - they can scratch the surface of your ear and allow an infection to take hold. I got one a few months ago doing that (ear under shower) and ended up hospitalised due to side effects of the antibiotics given for the resultant infection. The infection itself was probably the most painful thing that has ever happened to my stupid middle-class whitebread fat self.

A rolled up tissue seems to be a little safer since it has little to no rigidity, but be ultra-careful. The advice I got from every doctor I saw (and there was quite a string of them over the course of a month) was do not put rigid stuff in your ear and do not pour water in your ear.

There is a reason we have ear specialists and why they get away with charging lots of money. Get thee (or thine boyfriend) to one.

The rumbling water won't drive him half as nuts as being unable to sleep from pain even after taking 60mg codeine + 1000mg paracetamol every 4 hours. That's imminent-danger-to-the-liver levels of paracetamol but it's what the doc prescribed me to not go mad. It wasn't really enough.
posted by polyglot at 11:01 PM on July 31, 2006

Oh yeah and to answer your question: it sounds like maybe water behind the eardrum (see the doc). Not much you can do about that except let it drain down the eustachian tubes and hope it doesn't get infected. Ear doc will be able to drain any water from the outside and clear anything that might be blocking your ear.

If it gets infected, you will know about it. An ear infection is Extremely Painful. Did I perhaps mention Lots of Pain in my previous post? No? Well I shall now: it hurt like the proverbial motherfucker, in the Samuel L. Jackson sense of laying vengeance down upon thee.

In the totally unscientific department, I find that when I get a small quantity of water in my ear from swimming/diving, the trick of turning my head every which ways (mostly upside down) and shaking it lots helps sometimes. Even if it doesn't help, you can laugh at your boyfriend waving about. Oh yeah: sleep on that ear, obviously.
posted by polyglot at 11:10 PM on July 31, 2006

Best answer: First of all, don't stick q-tips or anything else pointy down your ears. Its a bad idea and you are just asking for some serious damage, espcially considering its pretty much impossible to see what you are doing unless you have the special ENT tools.

If his ear doesn't hurt and just feels "blocked", its probably wax buildup. They sell kits in pharmacies that have a peroxide solution and a blue bulb for flushing your ear. You put the solution in your ear, let it sit for 5 or 10 minutes (typically laying on your side so it doesn't come out), then flush it with warmish hot water. Some times you have to repeat this a couple times, and it may cause some minor irritation. Eventually a huge chunk of wax bigger then you though possible will come out. Take a picture of it next to a quarter for reference, and post it here for our amusement.

If that doesn't work after a few attempts, go see a doctor, preferably an ENT (ear-nose-throat) specialist. It may be too solidified for irrigation, or it could be something else. They will probably do about the same thing, but will be more persistent and also have the right tools (and visibility!) in case irrigation doesn't work.

It should go w/o saying that if its really hurting or irritated, its probably infected and he should see an ENT right away and not even try irrigation.
posted by rsanheim at 11:10 PM on July 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

To follow up on what poly says, if his ear feels blocked but _not_ painful, and he has a loss of hearing - he probably has ear wax buildup and/or water behind the ear. This happens to me after swimming sometimes, I'm guessing just a reaction to water constantly running in and out of the ear and getting stuck behind and solidifying wax.

If its more of an irritated/painful feeling, especially when pulling on the ear, its probably swimmers ear. This is an infection due to water getting stuck in your ear and hanging out too long. So if thats the case, just go to a doc so they can give you antibiotic ear drops.
posted by rsanheim at 11:21 PM on July 31, 2006

I was taught to irrigate my ear by my doctor with one of those baby nose bulbs. I do it every month or so to clean out ear wax with warm water, I was told it is highly unlikely that it will cause any damage. But definately don't put any rigid shit in your ears!
posted by bigmusic at 11:23 PM on July 31, 2006

polyglot: Please do not do what MonkeySaltedNuts suggests as it will pretty much guarantee you an inner ear infection.

Your anecdote of getting an ear infection after this course of action does not prove your infection was caused by such action. Probably you had something else going on.

Water in the ear / blocked ear is mostly caused by wax cloggage. The standard medical treatment is some form of irrigation. Hot showers are about the gentlest form of irrigation. Then again if the blockage is caused by an infection then I can't see how a hot shower would hurt. The only problem is for people who think a shower will cure an infection.

Unless you can point to some medical studies please don't scream about showers.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:33 PM on July 31, 2006

Note: if it hurts quite a bit, or if there is *any* blood at all, don't get water in there (i.e., no showering without cotton and vaseline plugging the ears, or those disposeable plugs you can get in the drug store) and for the love of all that is good and clean and holy, do not irrigate it with peroxide.

I promise you, whatever pain a ruptured eardrum may cause you, getting more water behind the membrane (as can happen if it's ruptured) will make that seem like a beautiful dream, not to mention possible damage to your hearing. I speak with the voice of much experience here ... Samuel L Jackson has nothing on this.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:40 PM on July 31, 2006

Agree with the suggestions not to use solutions, q-tips, tissues or anything else unless under the instruction of your doctor.

I have been swimming two or three times weekly for years, and at least a couple of times a month water will stay in my ears for more than a day or two despite all effort to get it out.

It is an annoying sensation of hearing loss accompanied by this sloshing sound when you move your head, but unless you feel pain, there is nothing to worry about. Water in the middle ear (behind the ear drum) is very unlikely unless you had a severe episode of choking on water. Wax build up is also an unlikely cause, unless you've already had such a problem in the past.

The main problem is that in a narrow canal such as the ear, water exhibits capillary behaviour that prevents mere gravity from getting it out.

Just put up with it, and within a few days there'll be a sudden moment when you feel the water release on its own. It's quite a distinct and relieving sensation. My guess is that as the water evaporates gradually, the size of the water drop shrinks to the point where it is too small to cling to the surface of your ear canal by capillary behaviour.

BTW, regular swimmers seem to find that the most effective way to get water out is to hop on one leg with the water-logged ear pointing groundward, while gently pounding your skull with the palm of your hand. Synchronize the impact of your palm on skull with that of your heel on ground.
posted by randomstriker at 12:45 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

I get this from time to time. As said above if it doesn't hurt, it's just wax. Sometimes, even if it hurts a little bit, it's just wax.

But if it hurts a lot, he might have a bacterial infection in which case he should go to the doctor. He might go to the doctor anyway, and they will probably irrigate his ear for him.
posted by beerbajay at 1:52 AM on August 1, 2006

I am with the ear wax theorists. Years ago both my ears plugged up after a swim. The doctor (general practitioner - no specialist) looked in there, got a big stainless syringe and blasted both my ears out with water. It doesn't hurt, but it made me flinch like crazy. Plugs of ear wax the size of the end of my pinky were expelled. I have always used q-tips and that may have been a contributing factor. I haven't had that problem since, BTW. It's a disgusting story, I know.
posted by wsg at 2:27 AM on August 1, 2006

I have been swimming two or three times weekly for years, and at least a couple of times a month water will stay in my ears for more than a day or two despite all effort to get it out.

Me also. Everything randomstriker says seems accurate to me. If your boyfriend hears the sloshy noise and his ear is plugged, this is, unfortunately, sometimes something that happens to swimmers. Chances of infection are low. I also had a ton of ear infections as a kid so I can tell you that while ear infections are painful and annoying and worth avoiding in general, they are unlikely to arise from water stuck in your ear and they are treatable as soon as you realize you have one. There is also no water behind your boyfriend's eardrum, as randomstriker says, unless something really weird happend.

What worked for me, besides the rolled up tissue paper to start was a little bit of hydrogen peroxide (sorry spaceman_spiff, it's what's in some of those dri-ear concoctions) with the occasional lying on that side on a hot warm washcloth. I was sure I was going to go crazy because of the sloshy noise and the blocked up ear, but after the second night sleeping on that side it drained enough so that I could dry up the rest of it with a q-tip.
posted by jessamyn at 4:38 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Water behind the eardrum can often be drained via the eustachian tube by extended efforts to perform the "yawn" or pressure equalization maneuver most airline passengers and all free divers should be expert at doing. Don't attempt to blow pressure into the inner ear by "holding the nose," as this can force throat germs up and into the ear.
posted by paulsc at 5:16 AM on August 1, 2006

Clarification: hydrogen peroxide is fine. I'm just saying, if there's a lot of pain or any blood, he has a ruptured eardrum, and putting peroxide back there will be neither fun nor productive.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 5:31 AM on August 1, 2006

If I were a superhero, my special power would somehow relate to the production of earwax, as my doctor says I produce a superhuman amount of it. Because of this, I used to get ear infections virtually any time I went swimming, regardless of water quality. First, wax traps the water inside the ear, which is uncomfortable, but not painful. If I let it go to long, an infection forms and it feels as if I am being stabbed in the head with an icepick.

As mentioned above, try hydrogen peroxide (let it sit in the ear for about two minutes--it fizzes and feels extremely funky--then let it drain out; have a towel handy for this last part). I can't stress enough, do not use a q-tip. My ever colorful doctor equates them with the tamping sticks civil war soldiers used to load their cannons. If the peroxide doesn't do the trick, have him go to the doctor. Mine uses a gigantic, scary device that looks like something a cartoon character would use to spray insecticide. He fills it with warm water and douses my ear--which would seem counter-intuitive--but like rdr, the process dislodges a ginourmous chunk of wax. Unpleasant, but it beats ripping my ear off when the pain becomes unbearable
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 6:30 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

[I am not a doctor]
I don't know if this is the same thing, but about 3 weeks ago when I went swimming in the lake at my parents' campground, I came out of the water with what felt like water in my ears. I tried my damndest to get it out, without resorting to jamming stuff in my ears. Nothing worked.

So, finally, in frustration, I called a friend of mine who had done professional-level swimming for many years, and asked if he had any special advice. He suggested plugging the unaffected ear, plugging my nose, and holding my mouth shut while exhaling. (Be as gentle as possible when doing this.)

It didn't work, and I was getting really annoyed with the sensation in my ear. Then, on what I thought was an unrelated tangent, I was complaining about how when I first dove into the water, when I came out I couldn't stop hacking up all sorts of mucous. (It made no sense to me, as I was not swimming very vigorously, I didn't have a cold, and until getting in the water my head did not feel stuffed up.) Afterwards I started developing cold-like symptoms, but no cold developed. I just wrote it off as side-effects from being an heavy smoker with no sense of physical fitness who hadn't gone swimming in 4 years.

Whether this is accurate or not, my swimmer friend told me that I more-than-likely hopped into the water too fast and the rapid change in pressure made my ear pop. It felt like there was water in there, but since we reached this new conclusion 3-4 days into my mild torment, and I had not developed an ear infection, this new theory seemed plausible.

In the end, it took about 1.5 weeks for that really annoying "everything sounds slightly muffled" feeling to cease. The only reason I did not go to a doctor is because my problem did not get any worse; I was fully prepared to go see a real professional at the first sign of pain or worsenning.

I hope this boring story helps. :)
[/I am not a doctor]
posted by Dark Messiah at 6:48 AM on August 1, 2006

In the future he may want to wear ear plugs while he swims.
posted by JJ86 at 7:25 AM on August 1, 2006

I just had this exact problem a couple weeks ago. I tried everything including hydrogen peroxide, swimmer's ear drops, a blow dryer, q-tips, etc. What finally worked was putting a little bit of oil (olive worked for me) in the ear and laying on my side for a good 15-20 minutes to let it sort of loosen up the wax. I'm not entirely sure that part is necessary, but then the crucial step is to get a 10 ml syringe or one of those squeeze bulbs and repeatedly shoot hot water into the ear canal at different angles. Eventually, as one or two people mentioned above, a huge clump of dried wax will come out and the water will drain. I did have to use pretty high pressure, but it didn't really hurt at all. But there's no need to go to a doctor. They'll just do the same thing.
posted by Durin's Bane at 8:18 AM on August 1, 2006

I had swimmer's ear approximately every other DAY as a kid. Seriously. I got swimmer's ear from the shower. I am not a doctor, but at my doctor's advice, I use an equal mixture of rubbing alcohol and vinegar in my ears after I swim. The doctor says the vinegar kills the bacteria and the alcohol dries up excess water trapped inside the ear canal. As an adult, my eustachian tubes are still the size of a newborn baby's. I feel his pain! Good luck.
posted by theantikitty at 8:48 AM on August 1, 2006

Response by poster: So we went to the clinic today because he was really uncomfortable and not being able to hear properly was driving him crazy. As many people suggested, it turns out the reason the water wasn't draining was a large glob of earwax. The doc broke it up (sorry, no picture rsanheim) and drained his ears.

Apparently, my gentleman friend has oddly shaped ear canals and tough ear wax, so we may have to deal with this again. The doctor said to be careful with the drugstore wax-softening agents, because people can develop alergies to them over time, and suggested using sweet oil instead. And, of course, no using q-tips.

Thank you everybody for the helpful suggestions!
posted by bookish at 1:54 PM on August 1, 2006

(sorry for the thread-jack, bookish... glad to hear you got it fixed with no dramas)
MonkeySaltedNuts: the shower water was what the doc told me the likely cause was. Irrigation by the doctor involves carefully sterilised stuff that a shower certainly isn't. He intimated that should I care to do that again, I should expect an infection again.
posted by polyglot at 5:09 AM on August 2, 2006

I'm way too late on this, but for future reference here's a technique I always use for unplugging my ears after swimming. Place your the bottom part of your palm over your ear. Try to get it at just that right place where the shape of your hand fits naturally against the opening to your ear. Press firmly. Now lift the bottom part of your hand. You should feel a release of pressure, as the vacuum created by your hand against your ear is broken. You might have to do it several times to get it to work, but it usually does unless you've really gotten a lot of water in your ear.
posted by katyggls at 12:09 AM on August 10, 2006

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