What are Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear?

Otitis externa
Klaus D. Peter, Gummersbach, Germany/Wikimedia Commons/ CC-BY-3.0-DE

What is Swimmer's Ear?

Swimmer's ear, or otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear that is caused by getting contaminated water in the ear. This can occur particularly if the water stays inside the ear for a prolonged period of time as this creates an environment for bacteria or fungi to grow and thrive in. Swimmer's ear is a common condition that can occur in individuals of all ages but may be more common in children and teenagers than adults.

It may also occur more frequently in individuals with underlying conditions such as eczema or excessive ear wax.

Difference Between Otitis Externa and Otitis Media.

You should not confuse otitis externa with otitis media, which is an inner ear infection. Otitis is latin for inflammation of the ear. Media or externa refers to where the inflammation is occurring, which is in the inner ear and outer ear canal respectively. Swimmer's ear is not the same thing as a middle ear infection (otitis media), which is inside of the ear and experienced by almost all children. While swimmer's ear is common among children, anyone can get swimmer's ear. Symptoms of swimmer's ear include:

Rarely swimmer's ear can spread to parts of the body other than the outer ear canal.

If this happens, symptoms of a more systemic infection are likely to occur, including:

  • fever
  • pain around the bones and tissues at the base of the skull may indicate a related and more serious condition called malignant otitis externa

If you are not sure whether your condition is a middle ear infection or swimmer's ear, there are a few key differences.

Swimmer's ear is very painful to the outer ear -- so if you touch your ear and experience pain, you may have swimmer's ear. A middle ear infection will not cause visible swelling, itchiness, or pain to the outer portion of the ear (the cartilage portion of the ear, which can be easily seen and felt).

Certain risk factors make it more likely that you will develop symptoms of swimmer's ear. These include:

  • unnecessary removal of ear wax (cerumen)
  • putting any foreign object into the ear, even a q-tip
  • scratching your ear (this damages the skin and makes it easier for germs to get in)
  • swimming in contaminated water, including commercial swimming pools and hot tubs

It is important to see a doctor if you have symptoms of swimmer's ear so that you can get antibiotics to treat the infection. Untreated swimmer's ear may cause so much swelling that tissues may block access to the ear canal. If this happens your doctor will insert a wick into your ear which will allow antibiotic ear drops to be administered. Use these tips to prevent swimmer's ear:

  • gently blow dry your ears on a cool setting after swimming or bathing
  • use a drop of olive oil or baby oil in each ear daily (as long as you have not had surgery or might have an impaired ear drum)
  • use ear plugs while bathing or swimming


American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery. Swimmer's Ear. http://www.entnet.org/content/swimmers-ear

CDC. Swimmer's Ear.  http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/rwi/illnesses/swimmers-ear.html

Medline Plus. Swimmer's Ear.  https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000622.htm

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