What is Swimmer’s ear? Causes, symptoms, treatment, complications, and prevention

Written by Nicolas Perez Diaz, July 8, 2023

Swimmer’s Ear or Otitis Externa is an infection of the outer ear canal, which is part of the ear that leads from the ear opening to the eardrum. When water becomes trapped in the ear canal, a moist environment that encourages bacterial or fungal growth forms.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine:

“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.”

Causes of Swimmer’s ear

This condition is primarily caused by water that stays in the ear canal and encourages the growth of bacteria or fungi. Swimmer’s ear development may be influenced by a number of factors, including:

  • Excessive moisture

Prolonged exposure to water from swimming, showering, or humid environments increases the risk of infection.

  • Damaged skin

Vigorous cleaning or inserting objects into the ear can scratch the skin. If the scratches or abrasions break the skin, fungi or bacteria can get through.

  • Foreign objects

Inserting cotton swabs, bobby pins, or other objects into the ear can damage the ear canal’s delicate skin and disrupt the ear’s natural protective mechanisms.

  • Contaminated water

If you swim in dirty or contaminated water, you will have an increased risk of ear, gastrointestinal, and eye infections.

Signs and symptoms

Swimmer’s ear signs and symptoms can range in severity, and may include:

  • Ear pain or discomfort.
  • Itching in the ear canal.
  • Redness and swelling of the ear canal.
  • Drainage of pus or fluid from the ear.
  • Reduced hearing or a feeling of fullness in the ear.
  • Increased sensitivity to touch or pressure around the ear.
  • Fever.

Individuals might experience jaw or neck pain or swollen lymph nodes near the ear that is affected.

Interesting related article: What’s the difference between a sign and a symptom?

Swimmer's ear or otitis externa - images of an infected ear

Created by medicalvocab.com using Wikimedia Commons images.

Treatment for swimmer’s ear

The aim here is to relieve symptoms and eliminate the infection. Common treatment approaches include:

  • Ear drops

OTC ear drops that contain isopropyl alcohol and glycerin can help dry out the ear. OTC stands for over-the-counter, and refers to medications that we can buy without a doctor’s prescription. The doctor may prescribe an antibiotic or anti-fungal in the form of ear drops.

  • Pain relief

Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen are effective painkillers.

  • Ear cleaning

Your doctor or nurse may clean out the ear canal. Don’t try to do this yourself!

  • Avoid exposing your ear to water

During treatment, it is crucial to keep the affected area dry. Avoid swimming, submerging your head in water, or allowing water from a shower to splash onto or near your ear.

Will swimmer’s ear go away by itself? According to clevelandclinic.org: “No, it won’t.”


Untreated swimmer’s ear may lead to:

  • Spread of infection

The infection can spread to the bones of the skull or cartilage of the ear.

The Mayo Clinic makes the following comment regarding possible complications:

“If swimmer’s ear develops into advanced skull base osteomyelitis, the infection can spread and affect other parts of your body, such as the brain or nearby nerves. This rare complication can be life-threatening.”

  • Recurrent or chronic infections

Some individuals may become prone to recurrent or chronic ear ear problems. Chronic means long-term.

  • Hearing loss

There is a risk of hearing loss, which may be temporary, and in some cases permanent.

How painful is swimmer’s ear? According to kidshealth.org

“It can be severe and gets worse when the outer part of the ear is pulled or pressed on. It also may be painful to chew. Sometimes the ear canal itches before the pain begins. Swelling of the ear canal might make a child complain of a full or uncomfortable feeling in the ear.”

Prevention of swimmer’s ear

The following tips may help reduce your risk of developing swimmer’s ear:

  • Keep ears dry

After swimming or showing, gently dry the ears with a towel or use a hairdryer on a low setting to remove moisture.

  • Avoid inserting objects into your ears

Never using cotton swabs, bobby pins, or other objects to clean your ears.

  • Avoid contaminated water

Stay away from contaminated or potentially contaminated water, such as lakes, ponds, rivers, or pools that are not maintained properly. Be careful, some beaches have very dirty seawater!

If you are experiencing some of the signs and symptoms described in this article, or wonder whether you might have an ear infection, talk to your doctor.