Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear

  • Swelling, pain, and itching in the area of the outer ear
  • Soreness and tenderness in the triangular piece of cartilage in front of the ear opening
  • Discharge from the ear canal

What Is Swimmer’s Ear?

Otitis externa is the medical name of this painful, itchy condition, which is a bacterial (sometimes fungal) infection brought on when water containing infectious agents gets trapped in the ear and causes inflammation of the outer ear and canal. Just as you needn’t be an athlete to get athlete’s foot, you needn’t be a swimmer to get swimmer’s ear.

What Causes Swimmers Ear?

Swimming is the most common cause of this problem, but some people may get water in their ears from showering or washing their hair. The longer the water remains in the ear, the more likely it is that any microorganisms will breed.

What if You Do Nothing about Swimmer’s Ear?

A mild case of swimmer’s ear often clears up without treatment. Severe, persistent, or recurring cases require medical attention.

Home Remedies for Swimmer’s Ear

  • Keep the infected ear dry. Don’t go swimming. When you shower, keep your infected ear turned away from the water while washing your hair, and otherwise wear a shower cap.
  • Use antiseptic eardrops. You can buy these without a prescription at any drugstore. Or make them yourself: mix equal parts of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol. This solution restores the natural acid balance of the ear canal and helps dry it out; it also kills bacteria. If alcohol irritates your skin, use vinegar diluted with water. Put one or two drops of this solution in each ear with a dropper. Leave the drops in your ear for two or three minutes, then tilt your head and let them drain out. Repeat three times daily.
  • Don’t scratch. Resist the temptation to scratch inside the ear with an object; you risk rupturing your eardrum.

Prevention of Swimmer’s Ear

  • Clear your ears. After swimming, shake your head to remove water trapped in your ears.
  • Keep the ears dry. Gently dry the external ear with a corner of a towel. Don’t insert cotton swabs or anything else into the canal to dry or clean your ears. This could cause injury or infection.
  • If you are prone to ear infection, use antiseptic eardrops. This is particularly helpful if you’ve been swimming in a lake.
  • Consider having your ears checked. People who are prone to itchy ears or ear infections may need to have a doctor check their ears and remove excess wax before swimming season starts. If you have ever had a perforated eardrum or have ever had ear surgery, get medical advice before using eardrops and before swimming.

When To Call Your Doctor for Swimmer’s Ear

If swelling, pain, and discharge occur, or if mild inflammation persists for more than a few days, contact your doctor.

What Your Doctor Will Do

A thorough examination of the ear will be performed and a culture for bacteria may be taken. Effective treatments include irrigation of the ear and antibiotic eardrops.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 10 Aug 2010

Last Modified: 05 Oct 2011