"Swimmers Ear" Infection: Symptoms, Treatment and More

Katelyn Hagerty FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 11/20/2020

Ear pain is right up there with tooth pain. It’s miserable, and it generally feels like you can’t do anything about it. 

When it comes to an ear infection — whether a middle ear infection or the condition known as swimmer’s ear — there is something you can do about the pain. Writhing around won’t do anything. Talking to a healthcare provider physician can. 

If you have swimmer’s ear, antibiotics can speed your healing and get you out of your misery. Read on to learn more about this condition and help determine whether or not a call to your healthcare provider physician makes sense. 

What Is Swimmer’s Ear? 

Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, is a bacterial infection of the outer ear canal. It’s not the same as a middle ear infection, most often referred to as simply an ear infection, though both are most common in children.

Swimmer’s ear may be more common in children, but anyone can get otitis externa. It’s not limited to swimmers, either.

The condition is called “swimmer’s ear” because it can be caused by swimming, though this isn’t always the case. When swimming for extended periods — like kids tend to do in the summer — the water can irritate the ear, breaking down the skin and letting bacteria enter. This leads to infection and typically pain.

In addition to swimming, otitis externa can also be caused by warm, humid conditions, injuring the ear canal, having dry skin in the ear canal, scratching the ear canal with your fingers or cotton swabs, or even an overabundance of ear wax. 

People with skin conditions like eczema are at a greater risk of developing swimmer’s ear, as are those who use headphones, hearing aids, and swimming caps.

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Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear 

The symptoms of swimmer’s ear are generally mild but can get more severe with time  if the infection gets worse or is left untreated. Those symptoms may include: 

  • Itchiness inside the ear canal

  • Redness and inflammation of the ear

  • Pain when touching or manipulating your ear lobe

  • Swollen glands or ear canal 

  • Hearing loss or muffled hearing 

  • A sense of having your ear plugged 

  • Pus draining from your ear

  • Fever 

Swimmer’s Ear Treatment 

If you have swimmer’s ear, a healthcare providerdoctor can prescribe antibiotic ear drops to help get rid of the infection. These are generally used for 10-14 days. In severe cases, where the ear is swollen and the drops can’t reach the affected area, your healthcare providerdoctor may insert a wick to help carry the medicine into your ear.

Sometimes, you may have to take an oral antibiotic, particularly if the infection spreads beyond the outer ear.

At home, you can take over the counter pain medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to manage the pain while you wait for the antibiotics to work.

Preventing Swimmer’s Ear 

Swimmer’s ear is usually not may not be serious, but it is unpleasant. So once you’ve had it, you don’t want to get it again. Fortunately, there are things you can do to prevent otitis externa. 

Keep your ears dry. After showering, bathing, swimming or any other activity where your ears get wet, make sure you dry them completely. If a towel or tilting your head to the side to allow the water to drain doesn’t do the trick, you can use a hair dryer on the lowest settings to help dry the inside of your ear. Hold the dryer several inches from your ear.

Another trick for drying your ears after swimming: a cotton ball containing drops of a mixture of half rubbing alcohol and half white vinegar. However, if your ear has any injuries inside your ear, this method is not recommended. As the alcohol evaporates, it takes the water with it, while the vinegar prevents bacterial growth.

If you are a frequent swimmer, consider using specialty ear plugs to prevent the flow of water into your ears.

Don’t insert objects, such as Q Tips, into your ear. Doing so can irritate the sensitive skin within and open you up to infections. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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