Swimmer's ear (otitis externa) is an
inflammation or infection of the
ear canal, the passage that leads from the outer ear to the eardrum. This
condition is called swimmer's ear, because it commonly occurs in people who have
been swimming. But other people can get it too.
What causes swimmer's ear?
You can get swimmer's
ear when bacteria or fungus grows in your ear canal. This happens when water,
sand, or other small debris irritates the delicate skin in the ear canal. Other
things that can irritate the ear canal include hearing aids, lots of ear
cleaning, and eczema of the ear canal.
Swimmer's ear is more
likely if you have a very narrow or hairy ear canal; live in a warm, humid
climate; have little or no earwax; have lots of ear infections; or have eczema
or dry skin. If you have had swimmer's ear in the past, you are more likely to
get it again.
What are the symptoms?
Swimmer's ear can be very painful. The pain can get worse when you touch
the earlobe or another part of the outer ear or when you chew. Other symptoms
can include itching, a feeling of fullness in the ear, and a yellowish or
brownish discharge from the ear. Your ear canal may be swollen. In severe
cases, the outer ear can be red and swollen too.
If you think you
have swimmer's ear, call your doctor to find the best way to treat it.
If you have diabetes or take medicine that suppresses your immune system,
swimmer's ear can cause severe problems. Call your doctor right away.
How is swimmer's ear diagnosed?
doctor can usually tell whether you have swimmer's ear by looking into your ear
and asking questions about your symptoms.
How is it treated?
Follow these tips when treating swimmer's
If your doctor prescribed eardrops, use them as
Talk with your doctor before putting anything in your
Avoid getting water in the ear until after the problem
Use a hair dryer to carefully dry the ear after you
over-the-counter pain medicine like acetaminophen
(such as Tylenol), ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin), or naproxen (such as
Aleve). Read and follow all instructions on the label. Do not give aspirin to
anyone younger than 20. It has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious
Some home treatment can help swimmer's ear. But it is
important to see a doctor first. If your doctor says it's okay, you can try
ear is itchy, try nonprescription swimmer's eardrops, such as Star-Otic or
Swim-Ear. Use them before and after swimming or getting your ears wet.
To ease ear pain, apply a warm washcloth or a heating pad set on
low. There may be some drainage when the heat melts earwax.
Do not use a heating pad when you are in
bed. You may fall asleep and burn yourself.
Do not use a heating
pad on a child.
In severe cases, the ear canal should be carefully cleaned
out by an ear specialist. Sometimes, if the ear canal is very swollen, a
wick with antibiotic drops will be placed in the ear canal.
use ear candles. They have no proven benefit, and they can cause harm.
How can you prevent swimmer's ear?
You may be able to prevent swimmer's ear.
Do not scratch or clean the inside of the ear
with cotton swabs, bobby pins, your fingernails, or other objects.
Avoid prolonged use of earplugs and in-ear headphones. Like cotton swabs, these
can cause irritation and itching and can plug the ear with wax.
Keep soap, bubble bath, and shampoo out of the ear canal. These
products can cause itching and irritation.
Keep your ears dry.
After you swim or shower, shake your head
to remove water from the ear canal.
Gently dry your ears with the
corner of a tissue or towel, or use a hair dryer on its lowest setting. Hold
the dryer several inches away from the ear.
Put a few drops of
rubbing alcohol or rubbing alcohol mixed with an equal amount of white vinegar
in your ears after you swim or shower. You can also use over-the-counter drops,
such as Star-Otic or Swim-Ear, to help prevent swimmer's ear. Wiggle the
outside of the ear to let the liquid enter the ear canal.
Do not swim in dirty or polluted water.
Other Places To Get Help
American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery
1650 Diagonal Road
Alexandria, VA 22314-2857
The American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck
Surgery (AAO-HNS) is the world's largest organization of physicians dedicated
to the care of ear, nose, and throat (ENT) disorders. Its Web site includes
information for the general public on ENT disorders.
KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and
Nemours Home Office
10140 Centurion Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32256
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It
has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and
diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website
offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing
age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can
sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.