How to Avoid Ear Infections While Snorkeling?

By Jane van Harrewyn

What preventative measures can we take to avoid ear infections while snorkeling? We will be snorkeling in Raja Ampat and I understand that ear infections are quite common when snorkeling in this area. My husband is prone to ear infections… so this could ruin our holiday. Please share recommendations for prevention and what medications work if you do happen to get an ear infection.

Thank you.


  1. Long time competitive swimmer with almost no history of ear infections, despite allergies. Oh, and a nurse, now in urgent care, so we see plenty of ear infections.

    If he is prone to ear infections and is getting them without swimming in pool/ocean, I’d wonder why. Anatomy? Some people do have convoluted ear canals. The major reason I’d suspect, however, is untreated sinus congestion. Ears don’t usually get infected on their own – it comes from a cold and a back up of drainage putting pressure on the tympanic membrane from the middle ear. Work with someone on it.

    I use a Neti-rinse bottle (instead of the pot, it’s like a gentler flush) with saline after I do something that will trigger allergies (like mow the lawn) and take Zyrtec/cetirizine generic daily at bedtime. It’s a 24 hour antihistamine. He could also consider a Flonase spray (over the counter steroid spray), but I’d still do the rinse first because it would remove some of the mucus so the steroid can do a better job.

    So if you are planning on a big trip like that, I’d talk to your health care provider about the underlying reasons. Note you should not do Neti-rinses with water that hasn’t been purified. In severe cases, you can even put a small amount of steroid in the water for a more effective treatment. Managing congestion/drainage is where it’s at.

    When it comes to water time, I always use rubbing alcohol, about 1/4 tsp in each ear after swimming. I used to use brand Swimmers Ear but noticed back then they were mostly a drying agent + small amount of moisturizer (glycerin). I just buy rubbing alcohol at my destination (it’s cheap), but they do make small travel-friendly bottles of Swimmers Ear if you want to stay with a brand. I would use that every time he gets his ears wet to help them dry, even the shower. I’m actually also a q-tip person to keep the wax out of my ears. I had no idea that some people need ear flushes to get wax out!

    At your destination, start warm compresses at the first sign of ear pain. And again, drain out the sinuses, drink fluids, warm teas, take a decongestant, NO alcohol. Americans over-focus on antibiotics and most ‘ear infections’ don’t actually need to be treated immediately. But you can work with your healthcare provider to see if it is worth taking a prescription along, or work with your resort/tour to see if someone can look at your ears there and tell you whether or not to take an antibiotic (it’s a simple exam).

    Reference from Mayo Clinic

    • How about starting before you get into the water? Use wax ear plugs to mold in place in your ear and cover with a bathing cap to keep the ear plugs from floating away.

  2. Since getting an ear infection after sharing a snorkel spot with pelicans, I make up a small bottle of half rubbing alcohol and half white vinegar. This is similar to drops available at the pharmacy. I usually put a couple of drops into my ears before I snorkel and repeat afterwards. So far this has worked for me! Good luck!

  3. There is a lot of “stuff” in apparently clean saltwater, so it’s important to take precautions, especially if your ear canal shape tends to hold water. I always had trouble after swimming getting the water out, so now I always use ear drying solution, commercial ear drops, after every snorkel or dive. It breaks the surface tension so the water drains out, and contains some isopropyl alcohol for killing pathogens. You an also make your own; I think the recipe is 50% isopropyl alcohol/50% glycerin. In a pinch you can use hand sanitizer liquid (mostly alcohol) as I did in the Maldives after Heathrow confiscated my ear drops. Also it’s important to treat and cover any abrasions or cuts, because they can get infected in seawater.

  4. For years I have been using a solution of 50% alcohol and 50% white vinegar. You can mix it in a small bottle, with an eyedropper to dispense. I use about four or so drops per ear after snorkeling, and also 1-2 times a week to keep the inner ear clean.

  5. I think most of us assumed the ear infections were outer ear infections. If he is prone to middle ear infections then drops won’t work. If middle ear infections are the issue, then he should ask for a course of antibiotics to take along just in case. Ask for Augmentin, not amoxicillin, because there is a lot of antibiotic resistance to that old first line treatment.

    In a remote area he really doesn’t want to get a ruptured eardrum due to infection – extremely painful and would put an end to all water activities during your trip. He could also take some sudafed along – not good for diving or freediving but OK for flying and snorkeling.


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