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Swimmer's ear (otitis externa)

4-minute read

What is swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear is an inflammation or infection of the outer ear canal. It usually gets better quickly with treatment, and there are several things you can do to prevent swimmer's ear.

What are the symptoms of swimmer's ear?

The symptoms of swimmer's ear can include:

  • pain in the outer part of the ear — anywhere from slightly uncomfortable to severe, and worse when chewing
  • itching
  • a squelching or popping sensation when you move your ear or jaw
  • a feeling of pressure or fullness in the ear
  • tenderness when you move your ear or jaw
  • muffled hearing

The ear canal might look red and swollen. You might also have a discharge, which can look clear and watery or can look like pus.

medical illustration of swimmer's ear

What causes swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear, also called otitis externa or tropical ear, is usually caused by a bacterial infection. You are more likely to get swimmer's ear if you regularly get water in the ear, such as when you go swimming. A wet ear canal makes it easier to get infected. The risk increases if the water is not clean.

Damage or irritation to the ear canal can also increase the risk. The ear canal can be damaged or irritated from:

  • scratching inside the ears
  • cleaning the ear canal with a cotton bud
  • wearing hearing aids

Swimmer's ear can also develop if you have a fungal infection or an allergic reaction to something in your ears, such as ear plugs, medication or shampoo. You may also be more likely to get swimmer’s ear if you have skin problems such as eczema or dermatitis because the skin does not act as a protective barrier.

How is swimmer's ear diagnosed?

See your doctor if you think you might have swimmer's ear. Your doctor will probably examine your ear canal and tympanic membrane to ensure it is not damaged or torn.

How is swimmer's ear treated?

Your doctor will usually prescribe medicated ear drops. If possible, get someone to apply the ear drops for you — it is easier than trying to do it yourself.

In most cases, treatment will improve symptoms within 1 to 3 days. Most people will have few or no symptoms by the end of the first week of treatment. If your symptoms have not improved by then, see your doctor.

In severe cases, swimmer’s ear is treated by inserting a small length of gauze called a wick into the ear canal. This helps to deliver medications inside the ear.

During treatment, you should also:

  • avoid getting your ear canal wet — check with your doctor when you can go swimming or participate in water activities, and wear a shower cap while bathing or showering
  • avoid inserting anything into your ear canal, including cotton buds
  • avoid scratching or touching your ear

Can swimmer's ear be prevented?

Ways to prevent swimmer's ear include:

  • drying your ear canal with a hairdryer — keep the hairdryer on low heat and at least 30 cm away from your ear canal
  • using earplugs while swimming
  • avoiding swimming in dirty or polluted water
  • tilting your head after swimming to remove as much water as possible from your ear canals
  • not inserting cotton buds, other objects or your fingers into your ears
  • not trying to remove earwax — since it can protect against infection.

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Last reviewed: April 2021

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