How Swimmer's Ear Is Treated

Swimmer's ear, also called otitis externa by medical professionals, is a fairly common infection that needs to be treated by a healthcare provider. Swimmer's ear is caused by contaminated water entering the ear. It is an infection of the outer ear, unlike otitis media (middle ear infections), the ear infections that are so common in children.

Swimmer's ear is generally caused by bacteria or fungus, and treatment often depends on the severity of the infection but frequently involves the administration of special ear drops.

As the name implies swimmer's ear is common among swimmers but can be caused by any activity that causes water to become trapped in the outer ear canal. Such activities may include bathing or soaking in a hot tub. 

Girl being assessed for ear problems by physician
Burger / Phanie / Getty Images

The Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear

Symptoms of swimmer's ear may include one or more of the following:

  • Pain in the Ear 
  • Flaky Skin in the Outer Ear Canal
  • Redness
  • Itching


Swimmer's ear can usually be diagnosed by your healthcare provider just by performing a simple examination of your ear and reviewing your medical history and current symptoms.

Preparing the Ear for Treatment

In order to give you the proper treatment for your swimmer's ear, the outer ear canal must be cleared. Your healthcare provider can do this in the office. He or she will remove any debris that might be blocking the ear canal, (such as ear wax), and if swelling is making the ear canal difficult to access, the practitioner can insert a wick so that medicated drops can get inside of the ear.

Do not use ear candles or other methods to try to remove the debris yourself before seeing your healthcare provider, as you can damage the eardrum or introduce new germs into the ear. Cotton swabs are notorious for pushing wax further into the ear canal and causing blockages.

Antibiotic Ear Drops

Most cases of swimmer's ear are treated with antibiotic ear drops. The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery recommends that all uncomplicated cases of swimmer's ear be initially treated with antibiotic ear drops. This limits side effects and the possibility of creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Examples of common antibiotics include ciprofloxacin, neomycin, and finafloxacin.

Oral Antibiotics

If your swimmer's ear does not respond to antibiotic ear drops or if the infection has spread to areas other than your ears, your healthcare provider may choose to give you oral antibiotics.

Antifungal Medication

Although it is much rarer than a bacterial cause, swimmer's ear can be caused by a fungus. Is this case, it needs to be treated with a medication that kills the fungus. Examples include nystatin drops or oral drugs like fluconazole.

Steroids for Swimmer's Ear

Your healthcare provider may choose to treat the swelling from swimmer's ear with steroid ear drops, such as hydrocortisone or dexamethasone. For convenience, there are also ear drops that contain both an antibiotic and steroid. 

However, depending on your insurance (or lack thereof), combination products tend to be more expensive than buying the medications separately so your healthcare provider may choose to give you a couple of different prescriptions instead. Keeping your head elevated rather than lying flat while sleeping can also help to reduce swelling.

Treating the Pain of Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's ear can be a painful condition. You can treat your pain with things at home, such as a heat pack and over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Ear drops that contain a local anesthetic, similar to what you get at the dentist's office, are available but may not be the best choice depending on your circumstances.

In severe cases, your healthcare provider may have to prescribe narcotic pain medication, but this is usually not necessary. Most of the time pain begins to subside within a day or two of starting antibiotic treatment.

Keep Your Ears Clean and Dry

It is important to keep your ears dry while undergoing treatment for swimmer's ear. Try using a hairdryer on the lowest heat setting after you get out of the shower to thoroughly dry the ear canal, (be careful not to burn yourself).

If possible, you should avoid swimming or getting in a hot tub until you are finished taking antibiotics (usually seven to 10 days, depending on the antibiotic).

Swimmer's ear is curable, but some infections may take longer than others to clear up. Even mild cases of swimmer's ear can be recurring for many people. It's important to take measures to prevent swimmer's ear in the future.

5 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 of Disease Control and Prevention. Facts About "Swimmer's Ear".

  2. Harvard Health. Swimmer's Ear.

  3. Merck Manual. Ear Canal Infection (Swimmer's Ear).

  4. Minnesota Department of Health. Swimmer's Ear.

  5. Schaefer P, Baugh RF. Acute Otitis Externa: An Update. American Family Physician. December 2012.

Additional Reading

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