What is Swimmer's Ear?

Swimmer’s ear is an infection in the outer ear canal, which runs from the eardrum to the outside of the head. It is often caused by water that remains in the ear after swimming, creating a moist environment that encourages bacterial growth.

Swimmer’s ear can also be caused by putting fingers, cotton swabs and other objects into the ear, causing damage to the thin layer of skin lining the ear canal.

Usually swimmer’s ear can be treated with eardrops, which can be found over-the-counter or prescribed by a doctor, depending on the severity. Over-the-counter pain medications can help with pain. Treating it right away will prevent complications and more serious infections.

Symptoms are mild at first but could get worse if the infection is not treated or if it spreads. Mild symptoms include:

  • Itching in the ear canal
  • Slight redness inside the ear
  • Mild discomfort made worse by pulling on the outer ear
  • Some drainage of clear, odorless fluid

Moderate progression of swimmer’s ear includes:

  • More intense itching

  • Increasing pain

  • More extensive redness in the ear

  • Excessive fluid drainage

  • Discharge of pus

  • Feeling of fullness inside the ear and partial blockage of the ear canal by swelling, fluid and debris

  • Decreased or muffled hearing

Swimmer’s ear can reach advanced progression, which includes:

  • Severe pain that may radiate to the face, neck or side of the head

  • Complete blockage of the ear canal

  • Redness or swelling of the outer ear

  • Swelling in the lymph nodes in the neck

  • Fever

Contact a family doctor if there are any signs and symptoms, even mild. If not treated promptly, swimmer’s ear can lead to temporary hearing loss, long-term infection deep tissue infection and more widespread infection.

Avoid swimmer’s ear by:

  • Keeping ears dry. Dry only the outer ear, wiping it slowly and gently with a soft towel or clots. Tipping the head to the side can help water drain from the ear canal.
  • Try an at-home treatment of a mixture of one part white vinegar to one part rubbing alcohol, which may promote drying and prevent growth of bacteria. Pour 1 teaspoon of the solution into each ear and let it drain out.
  • Swim wisely. Watch for signs alerting swimmers to high bacterial counts and don’t swim on those days.
  • Avoid putting foreign objects in the ear. Attempting to scratch an itch or dig out earwax with items such as a cotton swab, paper clip or hairpin can pack material deeper into the ear canal and irritate the thin skin inside the ear or break the skin or even perforate the ear drum.

By Nicole DeArmond, Physician Assistant, ThedaCare Physicians -Waupaca