Everything You Need to Know About Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's ear is an outer ear infection that you get when water, often from a swimming pool, gets trapped inside of your ear. Water from bathing, swimming or boating in a lake or river, or sitting in a hot tub can also cause swimmer's ear. Unlike middle ear infections, swimmer's ear can be seen from the outside of the ear. 

Using cotton swabs or other methods to remove protective wax from the ears can increase your risk of developing swimmer's ear. You also may be at risk if you have cuts or scratches in your ears, where bacteria can enter.

Kids Playing at Pool
Carol Yepes / Getty Images

Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear

Symptoms of swimmer's ear may include ears that are red and itchy, flaky skin around or inside the ear, ear pain (especially when the ear is touched), swelling of the ear, or drainage from the ear.

In severe cases, complications of swimmer's ear may occur and cause hearing loss, bone and cartilage damage, and recurrent infection.

Other conditions that might be confused with swimmer's ear include skin allergies, or other skin conditions (like eczema), middle ear infections, or fluid in the ear.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

There are some instances where it might be okay to try some things at home and wait a day or two. If your symptoms get progressively worse, if your pain cannot be controlled with over-the-counter pain relievers. or if you're running a fever you should see a healthcare provider immediately.

​You should not use online home remedies such as homemade ear drops. It should also be noted that ear candles are not recommended. In fact, they can be dangerous.

Treatment of Swimmer's Ear

Your healthcare provider will choose a treatment for you based on the severity of your symptoms and how much the infection has spread. Most cases of swimmer's ear are treated with antibiotic ear drops, but in some instances systemic (oral) antibiotics may be necessary. Any antibiotics should be taken exactly as prescribed.

Usually, a specialist will suction the debris out of the ear to facilitate the placement and effectiveness of the ear drops. Sometimes if the ear canal is so swollen, drops will not go in, a specialist will put an ear wick in the canal to facilitate drops getting to the infection.

Some people have excessive ear wax that must be removed in order for the ear drops to be effective. Your healthcare provider can do this in their office. Do not try to remove ear wax yourself, because you can push it in farther (or even accidentally rupture your eardrum).

Ear drops are most effective when they are used properly, which usually requires another person to help administer them.

Your medical team will instruct you on how to use them:

  • Ear drops should be at room temperature, if they are too cold it can make you feel dizzy or nauseous. 
  • You should lay down with the affected ear up and a second person should put the prescribed number of drops in your ear.
  • Keep laying down for a few minutes afterward to allow the medication time to work.

Managing the Pain of Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's ear can be a painful condition. One of the ways that swimmer's ear is different from a middle ear infection is that, if you have swimmer's ear, it hurts when you pull or wiggle your ear lobe.

It can also be swollen and itchy, making this an all-around uncomfortable illness. You can try to manage your ear pain by using a heating pad and over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen to control your pain. If this is not effective you may wish to discuss other options with your healthcare provider.

Sometimes when they suction out the debris, it will ease the pain.

Prevention

The more time you spend in the water, the more likely you are to get swimmer's ear. However, the good news is that it is also a very preventable condition. 

Here are some tips for preventing swimmer's ear:

  • Use earplugs to keep water out of your ears
  • Make sure your ears are totally dry after bathing, showering, swimming, etc.. you can use a blow dryer on a low/cool setting to dry them
  • Maintain a healthy amount of ear wax
Was this page helpful?
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.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts about “swimmer’s ear.”

  2. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. Swimmer’s ear. Updated December 2018. 

  3. Hui, CP. Acute otitis externa. Paediatr Child Health. 2013;18(2):96-98. doi:10.1093/pch/18.2.96

  4. UW Health. Ear canal problems (swimmer’s ear). Updated June 26, 2019.

  5. Cleveland Clinic. Ear wax removal 101: The best (and safest) ways to clear clogged ears. Updated January 7, 2020. 

  6. Mount Sinai. Ear infection.

  7. Schaefer P, Baugh RF. Acute otitis externa: an update. American family physician. 2012;86(11):1055-61. 

  8. Drugs.com. How to use ear drops. Updated September 24, 2019. 

  9. Mount Sinai. Ear infection.

Additional Reading