Since the medical name for swimmer’s ear is otitis externa, you don’t have to be a swimmer to get it — it’s just easier to call it swimmer’s ear no matter how you got it. Any activity that results in water getting into, and more importantly staying in, your ear canal can cause otitis externa.
The condition is simply a bacterial infection that thrives in a moist environment. Whether you use a hearing aid or not, it’s a common enough malady that usually causes uncomfortable itching in the ears. But, in some cases and when not treated, it can get a little more serious.
A sure sign of having come down with swimmer’s ear — whether from surfing, general exercise, or being exposed to the elements — is clear fluid leaking from either or both ears. Sensitivity around the earlobe and tragus — that flap of skin at the opening of the ear canal — is also an early warning sign.
The best treatment is prescription-strength eardrops after a visit with a healthcare provider (over-the-counter medication isn’t effective). Staying away from water exposure is also required. Basically, keeping your ears dry makes for a more hostile environment for the bacteria and the eardrops actively do away with it.
Left untreated, swimmer’s ear can get nasty. The ear canal can fill with pus (see, nasty) and that can lead to swelling, more serious pain that creeps down into the face and neck area, hearing loss, and perhaps an infection of the lymph nodes. All will be accompanied by a fever.
To not deal with swimmer’s ear at all, wear earplugs when getting into the water for an extended period of time. If you use a hearing aid, wait before reinserting it after getting wet in order to give the ear canal time to dry out (this will be better for the hearing aid too).