Swimmer’s Ear is just as it sounds, a condition that happens to the ear as a result of swimming. Children and adults can get swimmer’s ear. Some children are prone to ear infections and usually have long-term complications that prompt a doctor’s care. Here are some things to know about swimmer’s ear.
What is Swimmer’s Ear?
Swimmer’s ear is a bacterial or fungal infection of the skin in the ear. This infection will cause swelling, pain, and/or redness in the outer ear canal, but is not contagious. The ear canal is the passageway between the outer ear and the ear drum. The medical term for swimmer’s ear is otitis externa. (Kids Health, 2021)
What are the Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear?
The symptoms of swimmer’s ear will be mild at first onset but will worsen as the infection progresses. Below are some of the symptoms listed in the order they may present as the infection progresses without treatment:
- Itching in your ear canal
- Slight redness inside your ear
- Mild discomfort that’s made worse by pulling on your outer ear or pushing on the little “bump” in front of your ear
- Some drainage of clear, odorless fluid
- More-intense itching
- Increasing pain
- More-extensive redness in your ear
- Excessive fluid drainage
- Feeling of fullness inside your ear and partial blockage of your ear canal by swelling, fluid, and debris
- Decreased or muffled hearing
- Severe pain that might radiate to your face, neck, or side of your head
- Complete blockage of your ear canal
- Redness or swelling of your outer ear
- Swelling in the lymph nodes in your neck
(Mayo Clinic, 2021)
Causes of Swimmer’s Ear
For those who spend a lot of time swimming in pool water, or swimming in unchlorinated water as in the ocean or lakes, getting swimmer’s ear may often be a familiar occurrence. You don’t need to swim in the water to get a case of swimmer’s ear. Moisture left in the dark warmth of the ear canal can lead to irritation and bacteria or fungi growth. The heat of summer also helps to promote this growth. (Kids Health, 2021)
Other ways to get an infection in the outer ear canal would be anything that would cause irritation in the skin of that area, such as placing foreign objects into the ear canal, skin disorders such as dry skin, or eczema which may lead to tears in the skin that could invite bacteria or fungi into the body. It is important to keep the ears as dry as possible. (Kids Health, 2021)
Swimmer’s Ear Diagnosis
At your initial doctor’s visit, the doctor will usually be able to diagnose swimmer’s ear based on the questions you answer and the physical examination. The doctor will use an otoscope to look into your ears. The otoscope is the device that has a light and a magnifier that they use to view your ear canal, eardrum, or tympanic membrane. Lab testing will most likely not be necessary at this point.
The doctor will check for swelling, redness, tears, fluid, and pus. Also, if there is an infection, the doctor will need to determine if it is in the ear canal only. Once your doctor has established it is swimmer’s ear, they will determine if it is bacterial or fungal.
Treatment for Swimmer’s Ear
The doctor will then go over treatment options with you. The treatment will vary, depending on the type and severity of your case of swimmer’s ear. For most cases, the doctor will prescribe ear drops. Most drops will contain some combination of these ingredients: a steroid (to help reduce inflammation), an acidic solution (to help to restore the ear’s natural antibacterial environment), an antifungal (to help fight any infection caused by a fungus), an antibiotic (to help fight any infection caused by a bacteria).
Your doctor may also recommend taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), or naproxen sodium (Aleve) for pain. Follow instructions for any of these pain relievers.
Ask your doctor to explain all medications, the treatment plan, and any reasons to call back to the office or to go to the emergency room. Follow your doctor’s instructions for treatment and advice to heal as quickly as possible. (Mayo Clinic, 2021)
Minimizing the Risks of Getting Swimmers Ear
- Those with dry skin and skin disorders such as eczema can cause tears, so try to keep it under control, especially when it affects your inner ear.
- If you swim often, be sure to wear earplugs or a swim cap to keep your ears dry. If you do swim and do not wear earplugs or a swim cap, lay with your ear facing against a dry towel and tug your ear lobe to try to drain the water that may still be in your ear canal.
- Do not swim in contaminated waters.
- Be careful when using headphones, earbuds, and hearing aids, as these may scratch the interior of your ear canal. Never place a foreign object into your ears, including your fingers. (Johns Hopkins Medicine)
When to See a Doctor for Swimmer’s Ear
You need to contact your doctor even if you notice mild signs of swimmer’s ear as infection won’t clear without prescription medicine. Children especially need to see their pediatrician as ear infections can escalate with complications quickly. Call your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room if you have advanced signs of swimmer’s ear, such as fever, vomiting or severe pain.
“Swimmer’s Ear.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/swimmers-ear. Accessed 29 Apr 2022.
“Swimmer’s Ear (Otitis Externa) (for Parents) – Nemours Kidshealth.” Edited by Melanie L. Pitone, KidsHealth, The Nemours Foundation, Jan. 2021, https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/swimmer-ear.html. Accessed 29 Apr 2022.
“Swimmer’s Ear.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 13 Aug. 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/swimmers-ear/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20351688. Accessed 29 Apr 2022