Swimmer’s ear isn’t just a condition that children get during the summer. This infection of the outer ear canal can affect anyone of any age, especially if they spend a lot of time in the water.

The condition produces irritating symptoms of redness, itchiness and swelling that are not only painful and distract from your quality of life, but also worsen over time if not treated properly.

Swimmer’s ear is just one of the many ear-related conditions treated by the ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctors at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. No matter what ear issues you have, the otologists and ENT specialists here can put together an individualized treatment plan to get you back to enjoying life.

OSUSwimmingPoolWhat is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) is an infection that causes irritation and swelling of the outer ear canal. The canal, which is a tube, runs from the eardrum to the outside of the head, and parts of it are visible.

That means symptoms can be seen externally, on the outer portion of the ear. This painful condition, while common in children, can affect people of all ages, especially those who spend a lot of time swimming — that’s where the condition gets its name.

What causes swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear typically occurs when water becomes trapped inside the ear, creating an environment that’s moist and ideal for growing unhealthy bacteria. This leads to infection.

Swimming in dirty water can also cause this condition; however, despite what the condition’s name implies, water doesn’t always have to be involved for a person to get swimmer’s ear. Anything that injures the skin of the ear can cause an infection. Other causes include:

  • Damaging the thin layer of skin near the ear canal by putting fingers, cotton swabs (like Q-tips) or other foreign objects in ear.
  • Experiencing eczema flareups in the ear or having dry skin in the ear canal.
  • Having earwax buildup.
  • Being in warm, humid climates.

Swimmer’s ear symptoms

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear start off relatively mild and don’t progress further if treated promptly and properly. Typically, this is done with ear drops prescribed by your doctor.

Experts usually classify swimmer’s ear symptoms into three categories: mild, moderate and advanced.

Mild swimmer’s ear symptoms

  • Itching in the ear canal
  • Slight redness
  • Mild discomfort in spots
  • Some clear drainage

Moderate swimmer’s ear symptoms

  • Itching that has intensified
  • Pain that is made worse by tugging or pulling on the ear
  • More pronounced redness
  • Extensive drainage, which could change to a yellow, pus-like color
  • Swelling
  • Feeling of fullness or blockage
  • Muffled hearing

Advanced swimmer’s ear symptoms

  • Severe pain that can radiate to face, head or neck
  • Full blockage of ear canal
  • Hearing loss
  • Redness all over ear and surrounding area
  • Swelling of lymph nodes in neck
  • Fever

Will swimmer’s ear go away on its own?

Sometimes, milder cases go away on their own; however, it’s important to see a doctor if you have symptoms, because the infection could take a while to clear up on its own or it could spread to nearby tissue or bone.

Treatments of swimmer’s ear

Treatment of the condition depends on the severity of symptoms, but generally, we prescribe ear drops with antibiotics to clear up the infection. Other avenues of treatment we might use alongside antibiotic ear drops include:

  • Over-the-counter pain medications to control pain
  • Ear drops with corticosteroids to reduce swelling
  • Oral antibiotics
  • An ear cleaning, or suction, to allow the antibiotic ear drops to reach the infection
  • A procedure to insert a cotton or gauze wick into a blocked ear canal to promote drainage and guide medicine
  • Reminders to keep the ear dry and refrain from swimming until the infection has healed

How long will swimmer’s ear last?

Treatment typically clears up the infection in about seven to 10 days.

How to prevent swimmer’s ear

Swimmer’s ear isn’t always preventable, but there are steps you can take to lessen your chances of developing this irritating infection. Tips to prevent swimmer’s ear include:

  • Use ear plugs when swimming or showering.
  • Dry your ears thoroughly after swimming or showering by tilting your head side to side, toweling off the outer ear gently and using a hair dryer near the ears.
  • Refrain from putting your fingers, cotton swabs and other foreign objects in your ear canals.
  • Ask your doctor about using over-the-counter ear drops of a dilute solution of acetic acid after swimming to prevent future infections.
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