How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer’s ear is caused by germs that need a moist environment to grow. So the best ways to prevent the infection involve keeping the ears dry and preventing the germs from breaking through the skin.

Swimmer's ear is an outer ear infection that develops when contaminated water sits in the ear for a prolonged period of time. It's a common infection that can be very painful, but it can be prevented.

Around 10% of people will experience swimmer's ear at some point during their life, but research shows that appropriate treatment and management are effective and can help avoid potential complications.

This article discusses how to prevent swimmer's ear. It explains the causes of swimmer's ear and offers tips for prevention.

tips for preventing swimmer's ear

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Keep Your Ears Clean and Dry

Thoroughly dry each ear canal after swimming or bathing. First, tip your head to the side until all of the water runs out of your ear, and repeat on the other side.

If necessary, you can carefully use a hairdryer on the coolest setting to completely dry the ear canal.

Avoid Swimming in Dirty Water

Swimmer's ear can be caused by swimming in water that is not properly treated or has high levels of bacteria. This can occur in natural bodies of water or public or private pools that aren't adequately treated.

Hot tubs and pools with proper disinfectant and pH levels are less likely to contain germs that can cause swimmer's ear. Public pools and hot tubs should have these levels tested twice a day. You can also use pool test strips to check for adequate disinfectant and pH levels yourself.

Information on water quality testing results for lakes, rivers, and oceans in all 50 states is available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maintain Proper Ear Wax Hygiene

Ear wax (also called cerumen) plays an important role in preventing ear infections. Plus, ear wax repels water. Excessive ear wax can typically be washed away with soap and water in the shower or wiped off with a damp cloth.

You should never insert a Q-tip or any other objects into your ears. This can push wax further into your ear or damage the skin. Also, avoid ear candling or other improper ear cleaning methods, which can damage the ear canal and make it more prone to infection.

If you have excessive ear wax, get your ears professionally cleaned by a healthcare provider. Because you may have small abrasions after having your ears irrigated by a healthcare provider, don't go swimming or get in a hot tub for a couple of weeks.

Wear Earplugs While Swimming

Wearing earplugs that keep water out of the ears while swimming or bathing can help prevent swimmer's ear.

Pliable earplugs can be purchased at some healthcare providers' offices or at many stores. Just make sure you get earplugs that fit properly and are intended to keep water out of the ear (versus foam earplugs sold to keep noise out or equalize ear pressure).

Take Care of Your Skin

The integrity of the skin inside the ear canal plays a big role in preventing swimmer's ear. Cracked, dry, or otherwise impaired skin is an infection waiting to happen.

You may be more likely to get swimmer's ear if you have a condition such as eczema, allergies, or seborrhea.

Make sure these conditions are treated by a healthcare provider. Even if you don't have these conditions it's possible to have dry, itchy ears with flaky skin. Some tips for keeping this under control include:

  • Keep your ears dry.
  • Avoid scratching or cutting your ears.
  • Keep hairspray or other irritating chemicals out of the ears by using earplugs or cotton balls.

Consider Using Ear Drops

There are a few ear drops you can use to help prevent swimmer's ear. But, if you suspect you may have a ruptured eardrum, do not put anything in your ears and see a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

You should also avoid using ear drops if you have synthetic ear tubes (also sometimes referred to as myringotomy or ventilation tubes) or if you have had any recent ear surgery.

If you don't have any of the conditions listed above, the following ear drops may be used.

How to use ear drops correctly
Illustration by Cindy Chung, Verywell

Rubbing Alcohol

Rubbing alcohol evaporates water trapped inside the ear and has antimicrobial properties. Some healthcare providers recommend using a few drops after swimming or bathing to dry out the ear—particularly if you have had ongoing problems with swimmer's ear.

However, if you do this too often, and the skin inside your ear canal gets chapped, it can increase your chances of getting an infection. Always talk to your healthcare provider before you try this or any other home remedy.

White Vinegar

White vinegar affects the pH inside the ear canal, helping to prevent infections.

Many healthcare providers recommend mixing a solution of half vinegar and half rubbing alcohol and using a few drops in each ear after swimming or bathing.

Olive Oil

A few drops a day lubricates dry skin and repels water. It has also been claimed that a little bit of olive oil can help people with excessive ear wax naturally expel cerumen.

Try a drop or two of olive oil in your ears each day to help lubricate the ear canal and nourish dry skin. If you do not have olive oil, any liquid vegetable oil can be used.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is listed on many websites as a home remedy for swimmer's ear, however, it should be used with caution.

While hydrogen peroxide does have the ability to kill a wide range of germs, it may also kill your healthy tissue cells as well. For this reason, it has fallen out of favor with many healthcare professionals. When healthcare providers do use hydrogen peroxide, they often recommend diluting it or rinsing it with saline or sterile water about 30 seconds after application.

How to Apply Ear Drops

Ear drops are best applied with the help of another person. Lay down on your side so that your ear is facing up. Have them pull your ear slightly out and up to straighten out the ear canal, then put in a few drops. Continue to lay on your side for a few minutes after the drops go in to make sure they are absorbed.

Complete Treatment to Avoid Recurrence

Swimmer's ear is often treated with antibiotic ear drops or oral antibiotics. The best way to avoid getting another case of swimmer's ear is to finish your entire course of antibiotics.

Stopping antibiotics, like Xtoro (finafloxacin), too soon can result in drug-resistant superbugs. Your infection might not just come back, but it could be even harder to treat.

Once you have finished treatment and been cleared by your healthcare provider, follow the tips listed above to prevent swimmer's ear in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is swimmer's ear?

    Swimmer’s ear is an outer ear infection. Medically known as otitis externa, it develops when contaminated water sits in the ears for a prolonged period of time. It is called swimmer’s ear because it commonly affects people who spend a lot of time in the water. 

  • Will swimmer's ear go away by itself?

    It can, but you might not want to wait it out. While a mild case of swimmer’s ear can clear up on its own, it is still quite painful. Treatment with antibiotic drops and steroid drops will help it resolve it faster.

  • How do you get rid of swimmer's ear fast?

    The fastest way to clear up swimmer’s ear is to see your healthcare provider. Your primary care doctor may be able to treat it or may send you to an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor). 

    An otolaryngologist will suction out the affected ear to remove discharge, ear wax, dead skin cells, and other debris—a rather quick and painless process. Once the ear is clear, you should feel some relief. 

    You will likely be prescribed ear drops containing an antibiotic and steroid to use a few times a day. If the infection is more advanced, you may also need oral antibiotics to clear it up. 

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts about swimmer’s ear

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Water quality information for oceans, lakes, and rivers by state.

  5. Khan NB, Thaver S, Govender SM. Self-ear cleaning practices and the associated risk of ear injuries and ear-related symptoms in a group of university studentsJ Public Health Afr. 2017;8(2):555. doi:10.4081/jphia.2017.555

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By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.