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. Water can get trapped in the ear canal during swimming or in other ways. The water may cause problems:
- It can help germs such as bacteria and fungi grow.
- It can soften the skin. This can let germs into the skin.
- It can wash away ear wax. The wax acts as a natural guard against infection.
Swimmer's ear 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?
One of the main causes of swimmer’s ear is too much wetness in the ear. This can happen when you swim. But it can also happen for other reasons. These include:
- Being in warm, humid, or damp 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 (foreign body) in the ear canal
- Having too much ear wax
- Having eczema or other inflammatory skin conditions
Who is at risk for swimmer's ear?
Swimmer's ear is more common in children, but it can also happen in adults. It is more likely if you do things that remove the protection from the skin. Losing this protection lets germs into the skin. For example, if you swm often, the water removes ear wax and softens the skin in the ear.
You can also harm the skin in the ear by wearing hearing aids, ear buds, or ear plugs.
These things also put you at greater risk for swimmer's ear:
- 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
- Itching inside the ear
- Pain, often when touching or wiggling your earlobe. The pain may spread to your head, neck, or side of the face.
- Pus draining from your ear. This may be yellow or yellow-green, and it may smell.
- Swollen glands in your upper neck or around the ear
- Swollen ear canal
- Muffled hearing or hearing loss
- A full or plugged-up feeling in the ear
The symptoms of swimmer's ear may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is swimmer's ear diagnosed?
Your healthcare 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). The tool helps your provider see inside your ear. This will also 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 or drainage from your ear, your provider may take a sample of the pus or drainage 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. The results can help guide your treatment.
How is swimmer's ear treated?
With proper treatment from a healthcare provider, swimmer’s ear often clears up within 10 days.
Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
Treatment may include:
- Taking ear drops to kill bacteria (antibiotic ear drops) or fungus (antifungal 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 possible 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. The prevents constant moisture inside the ear.
- Don’t scratch or clean your ear canal with cotton swabs, your fingers, or other objects.
- Don't be rough when cleaning your ear canal. Treat it gently.
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 about swimmer's ear
- 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 people of all ages who swim often.
- With proper treatment, it often clears up within 10 days. Prescription medicines can help ease symptoms.
- Preventing moisture and irritation can prevent swimmer's ear.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
- 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 name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- 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.