Many swimmers suffer from ear infections, which can lead to tinnitus, also known as ringing in the ears. This is a condition that can be more than just annoying and can worsen unless the cause of the problem--the ear infection itself--is treated.
What is Tinnitus?
Simply put, tinnitus is a condition when a person hears a ringing, buzzing, rushing sound or clicking in their ear when no external sound is present. This condition can occur in one or both ears, can be constant, or can come and go. Most people at one time or another have suffered from bouts of tinnitus--usually for brief periods of time. However, for some, this condition is almost debilitating because the level of noise being heard can be extremely loud.
Most swimmers have, at one time or another, suffered some sort of ear infection, which can lead to developing tinnitus. While there is no direct correlation to swimming and tinnitus, swimmers who develop ear infections, also known as swimmer's ear, are more likely to develop the condition. Tinnitus occurs when the inner cells of your ear are damaged. The tiny hairs that vibrate in response to noise--telling your brain what you're hearing--can be damaged and send false information. This sometimes results in hearing sounds that don't exist outside your ear. Swimmer's ear and tinnitus are two different conditions. The infection that causes the pain of swimmer's ear can sometimes lead to damaging nerve endings in the ear, and that's the cause of the tinnitus. While swimmer's ear can result in tinnitus, it is not always the direct cause of this condition.
According to the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), there is no cure for this condition. However, minor cases of tinnitus can be effectively eliminated by treating whatever is causing the damage to the ear. It's important to note that doctors are not treating the tinnitus per say, but the infection that created the tinnitus. In some cases, the infection may be eliminated, but the tinnitus could remain. In the case of swimmer's ear, a highly treatable condition, often treating the ear infection also treats the tinnitus. Treatment for the infection involves antibiotic drops administered to the ear and a period of staying out of the water. Some anecdotal information suggests homeopathic treatments, such as taking magnesium or zinc, herbal preparations such as ginkgo biloba,or B vitamins, have been helpful.
The best way for someone who spends a great deal of time in the water to avoid tinnitus is to avoid getting an ear infection. According to the Mayo Clinic, the best way to prevent swimmer's ear is to keep your ears dry---not always an easy task for a competitive swimmer. Jabbing anything in your ear to dry it or in an attempt to remove ear wax may only exacerbate any ear problem, so it's best to gently use a towel. Barring taking yourself out of the water, it's probably a good idea to protect your ears with ear plugs. The ATA also recommends staying clear of polluted water.
Having tinnitus if you love to swim doesn't mean the end to your swimming career. The ATA recommends seeing an audiologist if your condition doesn't go away or worsens and to take extra care with your ears in and out of the pool by avoiding loud noises and music, another cause of tinnitus (See Reference 2). Keep in mind that often tinnitus does go away or can become something you get used to.