You don’t have to be a swimmer to get water trapped in your ear canal. It can happen after any type of exposure to water, and it’s fairly obvious when it does. You may experience a tickling sensation in your ear, and it can affect your hearing as well.
In most cases, the water drains out of the ear on its own pretty quickly. But if it stays trapped, it can be very annoying, and it can lead to an ear infection in the external auditory canal of the outer ear, known as swimmer’s ear.
“Swimmer’s ear is an infection of your outer ear canal, which is bone and cartilage covered by skin and runs from your tympanic membrane (ear drum) to the outside of your head,” Christopher Thompson, MD, otolaryngologist with Providence Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, tells Health.
Water in your ear can lead to either a bacterial infection or a fungal infection, and it’s most often caused by water that remains in your ear canal, possibly trapped behind cerumen (ear wax). This moist environment allows bacteria or fungus to grow, Dr. Thompson explains.
Luckily, it’s not difficult to get water out of your ear on your own. Here are some things you can do when water is trapped in your ear.
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Tilt your head
The quickest and easiest way to get water out of your ear is simply to change your head position by tilting it, Daniel Jethanamest, MD, director of the division of otology and neurotology in the department of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at NYU Langone, tells Health.
To help draw the water out of your ear, create a vacuum by tilting your head sideways and resting your ear on your cupped palm to form a tight seal. Then move your hand back and forward, quickly but gently. Keep your head tilted until the water drains out of your ear.
You could also lie on your side for a few minutes with your head on a towel to absorb the water.
Gently pull on the ear
Another simple way to get water out of your ear is to gently tug on your earlobe toward the back or downward, Dr. Jethanamest says. “This can often move the cartilage of the ear canal, making it straighter to encourage the water roll out,” he explains. “Physicians gently pull on the ear this way when we want to examine the ear and tympanic membrane.”
While you’re doing this, you could also gently shake your head from side to side.
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Flush your ear out
If gravity and movement don’t work, you could try to flush your ear out with a 50/50 mixture of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar, using a dropper or small syringe, says Dr. Thompson. “The rubbing alcohol helps dry up the ear and the vinegar creates an acidic environment that bacteria does not like to grow in,” he explains.
Apply three or four drops of the mixture into your ear, then gently rub the outside of your ear. After 30 seconds, tilt your head to the side to let the mixture drain out. Be aware that you shouldn’t use this method if you have an outer ear infection, perforated eardrum, or tympanostomy tubes (eardrum tubes).
Use a hair dryer
To help air-dry your ear, you could try using a hair dryer on a very low/cool setting, Dr. Jethanamest suggests. Again, it’s important to be gentle, and keep the hair dryer about a foot away from your ear while moving it back and forth. At the same time, gently tug down on your earlobe.
Dissolve wax with hydrogen peroxide
If you feel like you’ve got a buildup of wax as well as trapped water in your ear, Dr. Jethanamest recommends using a dropper to insert hydrogen peroxide solution into the ear canal. “The hydrogen peroxide can sometimes loosen or dissolve the wax and help get rid of the water trapped in the ear canal,” he explains.
You can get eardrops online or over-the-counter that combine urea and hydrogen peroxide, known as carbamide peroxide, to dissolve earwax.
However, don’t use this method if you have an outer ear infection, perforated eardrum, or tympanostomy tubes (eardrum tubes).
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Stay away from the Q-tips
You might be tempted to reach for the Q-tips and start poking around in your ear to dislodge the trapped water, but this is a definite no-no. Dr. Jethanamest warns against inserting anything deep into your ear as it can cause more harm than good. You could add bacteria to the area, push the water deeper into your ear, injure your ear canal, or even puncture your eardrum.
Water in your middle ear
If the above tips don’t work, and the fluid sensation has been there for more than a couple of days, get it checked by your doctor. “Fluid can quickly turn into an outer or middle ear effusion if not treated appropriately,” Dr. Thompson warns.
Signs you may have trapped water in your middle ear (otis media) rather than the external ear canal are a sensation of fullness or congestion in the ear, hearing loss, and possible crackling or sloshing sounds in the ear when it’s in different positions, Dr. Jethanamest says. But it isn’t something you should try to diagnose yourself, so you’d need to make an appointment with your primary care provider.
“In order to properly diagnose a middle ear infection, a doctor would need to examine you with an otoscope or microscope,” Dr. Thompson says.
Sometimes, middle ear fluid can be caused by nasal congestion, in which case over-the-counter decongestants or nasal steroid sprays might be recommended. But it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis from your doctor, Dr. Jethanamest says. And if you have more severe symptoms like pain or swelling of the skin or areas around the ear, this could be due to an ear infection—another reason to check in with your doctor.
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