Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer’s Ear (otitis externa) is an infection of the ear canal.  The ear canal is the tube that connects the outer ear to the middle ear.  Most cases are easy to diagnose based on symptoms and easily treated with antibiotic ear drops.


Swimmer’s ear occurs when water gets into the ear canal, usually through swimming or bathing, and does not drain properly.  The water causes the skin to break down inside the ear canal, which leads to a local infection.  Although otitis externa can be caused by other trauma to the ear canal, water often from swimming is the most common cause.


Common signs and symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:

  • Pain - often worse with movement of the head and/or outer ear
  • Itching
  • Swelling and/or redness around the ear canal
  • Decreased hearing
  • Discharge - usually only a small amount of yellow discharge is noted

Treatment management

  • Antibiotic ear drops are the primary treatment for swimmer’s ear.  They require a prescription from your provider.  Ear drops are applied 2-4 times per day for approximately 1 week.
  • Analgesics – Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen are helpful for temporary pain control with swimmer’s ear.
  • A warm compress to the ear may help temporarily relieve pain.

Be sure to keep the ear canal dry when your child has swimmer’s ear to allow the ear to heal fully and as fast as possible.


If your child is prone to swimmer’s ear, you may be able to prevent the frequency of recurrence by one of a couple of methods:

  • Put a tissue, or other absorbant cloth, over the tip of the finger and place it into the outer portion of the ear canal.  This will dry large amounts of fluid in the canal. (DO NOT USE Q-TIPS AS THEY MAY IRRITATE THE CANAL).  The canal should be able to dry on its own from there.
  • Use of ear drops after swimming.  The ear drops are meant to dry up any fluid remaining in the ear canal.  They can be purchased at any pharmacy or made at home with 50% rubbing alcohol and 50% white vinegar.  Apply a few drops to each ear after swimming.  DO NOT USE IF THERE IS EAR PAIN BECAUSE THE ALCOHOL WILL STING.

When to call

Call our office if you believe your child has any of the above signs or symptoms.  In mild cases of swimmer’s ear we may be able to treat over the phone.  In more severe cases we prefer to examine children before treatment.  Please call our office and speak to your provider or one of our nurses to determine if you need to come in for treatment.  As always, if you prefer to be seen we are always happy to accommodate you with an appointment!

Takeaway message

Swimmer’s ear is caused by water getting into the ear canal and not properly draining.  It can be treated with antibiotic drops.  It is often mild and self limited.