Diseases and Conditions

Swimmer's Ear

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer's ear (otitis externa) is a redness or swelling (inflammation), irritation, or infection of your outer ear canal.

The ear canal is a tube that goes from the opening of the ear to the eardrum. When water stays in your ear canal, germs can grow.

This is a painful condition that often happens to children, and to swimmers of all ages. It does not spread from person to person.

What causes swimmer's ear?

Swimming in unclean water is a common cause of swimmer’s ear.

Other possible causes include:

  • Being in warm, humid places
  • Cleaning or scratching your ear canal using your fingers, cotton swabs, or other objects
  • Having an injury to the ear canal
  • Having dry ear canal skin
  • Having an object in the ear canal
  • Having extra ear wax

Who is at risk for swimmer's ear?

You are at greater risk for swimmer's ear if you:

  • Have contact with germs in hot tubs or unclean pool water
  • Have a cut in the skin of your ear canal
  • Hurt your ear canal by putting cotton swabs, fingers, or other objects inside your ears
  • Use head phones, hearing aids, or swimming caps
  • Have a skin condition such as eczema

What are the symptoms of swimmer's ear?

Each person’s symptoms may vary. The following are the most common symptoms of swimmer's ear:

  • Redness of the outer ear
  • An itch in the ear
  • Pain, often when touching or wiggling your earlobe
  • Pus draining from your ear. This may be yellow or yellow-green, and it may smell.
  • Swollen glands in your neck
  • Swollen ear canal
  • Muffled hearing or hearing loss
  • A full or plugged-up feeling in the ear
  • Fever

The symptoms of swimmer's ear may look like other health problems. Always see your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is swimmer's ear diagnosed?

Your health care provider will ask about your past health and any symptoms you have now. He or she will give you a physical exam. Your provider will look into both of your ears.

Your provider may check your ears using a lighted tool (otoscope). This will help to see if you also have an infection in your middle ear. Some people may have both types of infections.

If you have pus draining from your ear, your provider may take a sample of the pus for testing. This is called an ear drainage culture. A cotton swab is placed gently in your ear canal to get a sample. The sample is sent to a lab to find out what is causing the ear infection.

How is swimmer's ear treated?

With proper treatment from a health care provider, swimmer’s ear often clears up in 7 to 10 days.

Treatment may include:

  • Taking ear drops to kill bacteria (antibiotic ear drops)
  • Taking ear drops to help reduce swelling (corticosteroid ear drops)
  • Taking pain medicine
  • Keeping the ear dry, as directed by your provider

Your provider will give you instructions on how to use ear drops. Follow the instructions to be sure you get the right dose of medicine.

What are the complications of swimmer's ear?

If left untreated, swimmer's ear may cause other problems such as:

  • Hearing loss from a swollen and inflamed ear canal. Hearing usually returns to normal when the infection clears up.
  • Ear infections that keep coming back
  • Bone and cartilage damage
  • Infection spreading to nearby tissue, the skull, brain, or the nerves that start directly in the brain (cranial nerves)

What can I do to prevent swimmer's ear?

To help prevent swimmer's ear, try the following:

  • Keep your ears as dry as possible.
  • Use ear plugs when you are swimming or showering.
  • Don’t scratch or clean your ear canal with cotton swabs, your fingers, or other objects.

To dry your ears well after swimming or showering, try these tips:

  • Tilt your head to each side to help drain water out of your ears.
  • With your ear facing down, pull your earlobe in different directions. This will help drain water out.
  • Gently dry your ears with the edge of a towel.
  • Use a hair dryer on the lowest or coolest setting to gently dry your ears. Hold the dryer at least 12 inches from your head. Wave the dryer slowly back and forth. Don't hold it still.

Your health care provider may recommend drops to help dry your ears.

Key points

  • It is a redness or swelling (inflammation), irritation, or infection of the outer ear canal.
  • When water stays in the ear canal, germs can grow. This causes an infection.
  • It is a painful condition that often affects children, and swimmers of all ages.
  • Swimming in unclean water is a common cause of swimmer’s ear.
  • With proper treatment, it often clears up in 7 to 10 days.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

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