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Wondering What to Do about Swimmer’s Ear?

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Affecting the outer ear, swimmer’s ear is a pain-causing condition resulting from inflammation, irritation, or infection. These symptoms occur when water gets trapped in your ear, allowing bacteria to spread, causing a painful sensation. Because this condition commonly affects swimmers, it is known as swimmer’s ear. Swimmer’s ear affects mostly children and teenagers, but can also affect those with eczema (a condition that causes the skin to itch) or excess earwax.

A common source of the infection is increased moisture trapped in the ear canal during swimming, bathing, or showering. Increased humidity or living in warm, moist climates may also contribute to this common infection. When water is trapped in the ear canal, bacteria that normally inhabit the skin and ear canal multiply, causing infection and irritation of the ear canal. If the infection gets worse, it may affect other areas of the ear. Swimmer’s ear needs to be treated to reduce pain and eliminate any effect it may have on your hearing.

Factors that may contribute to swimmer’s ear include skin conditions affecting the ear canal, such as eczema.

Other factors that may contribute to swimmer’s ear include the following:

  • contact with excessive bacteria that may be present in hot tubs or polluted water;
  • excessive cleaning of the ear canal with cotton swabs;
  • contact with certain chemicals, such as hair spray or hair dye;
  • damage to the skin of the ear canal following water irrigation to remove wax;
  • a cut in the skin of the ear canal; and
  • other skin conditions affecting the ear canal, such as eczema or seborrhea.

Signs & Symptoms
The most common symptoms of swimmer’s ear are an itchy ear and mild to moderate pain that gets worse when you tug on the auricle (outer ear). Other signs and symptoms may include the following:

  • the sensation that the ear is blocked or full;
  • drainage;
  • fever;
  • decreased hearing;
  • intense pain that may radiate to the neck, face, or side of the head;
  • an auricle that appears to be pushed forward or away from the skull;
  • swollen lymph nodes (located in your neck); and
  • redness and swelling of the skin around the ear.

To evaluate you for swimmer’s ear, your doctor will look for redness and swelling in your ear. Your doctor also may take a sample of any abnormal fluid or discharge in your ear to test for the presence of bacteria or fungus if you have recurrent infections.

Treatment for the early stages of swimmer’s ear includes careful cleaning of the ear canal and eardrops that inhibit bacterial growth. Mild acid solutions, such as boric or acetic acid, are effective for early infections. For more severe infections, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to be applied directly to the ear. Pain medication may also be prescribed. Oral antibiotics may be prescribed if the infection goes beyond the skin of the ear canal. With proper treatment, most infections should heal in seven to ten days.

Tips for Prevention
A dry ear is unlikely to become infected, so it is important to keep the ears free of moisture during swimming or bathing.


  • Use ear plugs when swimming.
  • Use a dry towel or hair dryer to dry your ears.
  • Have your ears cleaned periodically by an otolaryngologist if you have itchy, flaky, or scaly ears or extensive earwax.


  • Use cotton swabs. They may pack earwax and dirt deeper into the ear canal, remove the layer of earwax that protects your ear, and irritate the thin skin of the ear canal, creating the perfect environment for infection.

Source: American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery,

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Spring/Summer 2009.