Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's ear, or otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear that is caused by getting contaminated water in the ear. It can occur from swimming in contaminated (dirty) water but also just by getting water in your ear while bathing or showering.

Swimmer's ear is more likely to occur if the water stays inside the ear for a prolonged period of time as this creates a moist environment for bacteria or fungi to grow and thrive in. Swimmer's ear is a common condition that can occur in individuals of all ages but may be more common in children and teenagers than adults.

Swimmer's ear may occur more frequently in individuals with underlying conditions such as eczema or excessive ear wax. The shape of some people's ears may also make it more likely for water to become trapped in the ear.

Woman swimming under water
Robert Daly / Getty Images

Difference Between Otitis Externa and Otitis Media

You should not confuse otitis externa with otitis media. Otis media is an infection of the middle ear and otitis externa or "swimmer's ear" is an infection of the ear canal. They can both be painful and result in temporary hearing loss. In otitis externa the ear canal is often painful to the touch, that is not often the case with an infection of the middle ear.


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

If you are not sure whether your condition is a middle ear infection or swimmer's ear, there are a few key differences. Swimmer's ear is very painful to the outer ear — so if you touch the cartilage portion of the outer ear and experience pain, you may have swimmer's ear.

A middle ear infection will not cause visible swelling, itchiness, or pain to the outer portion of the ear (the cartilage portion of the ear, which can be easily seen and felt), although it may cause symptoms such as pain, ear drainage or a ruptured eardrum.

Risk Factors

Certain risk factors make it more likely that you will develop symptoms of swimmer's ear. These include:

  • unnecessary removal of ear wax (cerumen)
  • putting any foreign object into the ear, even a q-tip
  • scratching your ear (this damages the skin and makes it easier for germs to get in)
  • swimming in contaminated water such as rivers or lakes and including commercial swimming pools and hot tubs

When to See a Healthcare Provider

It is important to see a healthcare provider if you have symptoms of swimmer's ear so that you can get antibiotics, (usually given in the form of ear drops), to treat the infection.

Untreated swimmer's ear may cause so much swelling that tissues may block access to the ear canal. If this happens your practitioner will insert a wick into your ear which will allow antibiotic ear drops to be administered.


Use these tips to prevent swimmer's ear:

  • gently blow dry your ears on a cool setting after swimming or bathing
  • use a drop of olive oil or baby oil in each ear daily, as long as you have not had surgery (ventilation tubes), or might have an impaired eardrum
  • use earplugs while bathing or swimming
  • tip your head from side to side to let any extra water drain out of your ears after bathing or swimming
  • use a drop of alcohol and vinegar in each ear after bathing or swimming (again, only if you have not had ear surgery or might have a ruptured eardrum)
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. American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Swimmer's ear (otitis externa).

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ear infections.

  3. Schaefer P, Baugh RF. Acute otitis externa: an updateAm Fam Physician. 2012;86(11):1055–1061.

  4. Cleveland Clinic. How to keep swimmer's ear from ruining your summer.

  5. University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics. Otitis externa: get rid of swimmer's ear.

Additional Reading
  • American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery. Swimmer's Ear.

  • CDC. Swimmer's Ear.

  • Medline Plus. Swimmer's Ear.

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