Swimmer’s Ear: A Splash of Information for a Pain-Free Summer


Summer means splashing around, soaking up the sun, and enjoying the water. Unfortunately, it can also cause a painful condition called the swimmer’s ear.


What is Otitis Externa?


Swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, is an outer ear canal infection. The outer ear canal is the tube running from the ear opening to the eardrum. This canal has thin skin that produces a protective waxy substance.


Water trapped in the ear canal can disrupt this natural balance. Moisture creates a warm, humid environment, perfect for bacteria or fungi. This leads to irritation, inflammation, and pain. Swimmer’s ear can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term).


Who’s Most at Risk for Swimmer’s Ear?


Certain people are more likely to develop swimmer’s ear. Here are the key risk factors:


  • Swimming frequently: More time in water increases the risk.
  • Using cotton swabs: These can push earwax deeper, causing irritation and trapping moisture.
  • Having narrow ear canals: They trap water easily, encouraging bacterial growth, which is why children are more likely to develop it. 
  • Experiencing skin conditions: Eczema or psoriasis can make ear canal skin more prone to infection.
  • Wearing hearing aids: These can trap moisture if not properly cleaned and dried.


Understanding these risk factors can help you take steps to prevent swimmer’s ear. By recognizing the signs and knowing the risks, you can enjoy a pain-free summer.

A man holds his bright red ear and looks down in pain.

Ouch! What are the Signs of Swimmer’s Ear? 


Swimmer’s ear symptoms usually start mild but can worsen if untreated. Recognizing these symptoms early can help you seek timely treatment.


Mild Signs and Symptoms

  • Itching in the ear canal
  • Slight redness inside the ear
  • Mild discomfort worsened by pulling on the outer ear or pressing the tragus
  • Some drainage of clear, odorless fluid


Moderate Progression

  • Increased itching
  • Intensified pain
  • More extensive redness in the ear
  • Excessive fluid drainage
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Partial blockage of the ear canal due to swelling, fluid, and debris
  • Decreased or muffled hearing


Find out more about muffled hearing


Advanced Progression

  • Severe pain radiating to the face, neck, or side of the head
  • Complete blockage of the ear canal
  • Redness or swelling of the outer ear
  • Swelling in the neck lymph nodes
  • Fever


Identifying these symptoms can help prevent complications and ensure timely treatment.


What Causes Swimmer’s Ear?

Swimmer’s ear is primarily caused by water trapped in the ear canal, creating a warm, moist environment for bacteria and fungi. Several factors can contribute to the development of swimmer’s ear.


  • Losing earwax: Excess water or cleaning can remove protective earwax.
  • Ear injuries: Inserting objects like cotton swabs can damage the ear canal.
  • Freshwater swimming: Lakes, rivers, and oceans may contain more bacteria than pools.
  • Skin conditions: Eczema or psoriasis in the ear canal increases infection risk.
  • Chemicals: Hairspray and hair dye can damage the ear canal.
  • Earbuds or hearing aids: Contaminated devices can introduce bacteria to the ear.


Understanding these causes helps you take precautions to avoid swimmer’s ear and enjoy a pain-free summer.


Will Swimmer’s Ear Go Away by Itself? 


No, swimmer’s ear won’t go away by itself. This infection needs proper treatment to resolve.


Why Treatment is Necessary

  • Preventing Spread: Left untreated, the infection can spread to the base of your skull.
  • Avoiding Complications: It can also affect your brain or cranial nerves.


Seeking Professional Help

Prompt treatment from a healthcare provider ensures effective recovery and prevents complications. Don’t ignore the symptoms; get professional help to treat swimmer’s ear and enjoy a pain-free summer.


When to See a Doctor for Swimmer’s Ear 


Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for a speedy recovery and preventing complications. Contact your doctor if you notice even mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear. Call your doctor immediately or visit the emergency room if you experience severe pain or fever.




Doctors usually diagnose swimmer’s ear during an office visit. If the infection is advanced or persistent, further evaluation may be needed.


  • Initial Testing: Your doctor will examine your ear canal with an otoscope. They will look for redness, swelling, and debris. They will also check your eardrum to ensure it isn’t damaged.
  • Further Testing: If necessary, your doctor might send a sample of ear fluid to test for bacteria or fungus. They may also refer you to an ENT specialist if your eardrum is damaged or the infection doesn’t respond to initial treatment.


Swimmer’s Ear Treatment Options


Effective treatment stops the infection and allows the ear canal to heal.


  • Cleaning: Doctors clean the outer ear canal to help eardrops reach all infected areas. They use a suction device or ear curette to remove discharge, earwax, and debris.
  • Medications: Doctors prescribe eardrops with ingredients like an acidic solution, steroids, antibiotics, or antifungal medication. These help restore the ear’s usual environment, reduce inflammation, and fight the infection.
    • To use eardrops effectively:
      • Warm the drops by holding the bottle in your hand.
      • Lie on your side with the infected ear up for a few minutes.
      • Have someone help you put the drops in your ear if needed.
      • Pull the ear up and back to administer drops.


  • Ear Canal Blockage: If the ear canal is blocked, doctors might insert a cotton or gauze wick to promote drainage and help medication reach the infection.
  • Oral Antibiotics: For advanced infections, doctors might prescribe oral antibiotics.
  • Pain Relief: Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen can ease discomfort. For severe pain, doctors might prescribe stronger pain medication.

A woman in a bathrobe points her hair dryer at her ear.

Helping Your Treatment Work


During treatment, keep your ears dry and avoid further irritation:


  • Don’t swim or scuba dive.
  • Avoid wearing earplugs, hearing aids, or earbuds until pain and discharge stop.
  • Use a cotton ball coated with petroleum jelly to protect your ear during showers or baths.
  • Use a hair dryer to carefully dry the ear after you shower.


Recognizing the need for professional care and following these steps can help ensure a quick recovery and a pain-free summer.


Preventing Otitis Externa


Proper drying techniques can prevent swimmer’s ear, especially for hearing aid users.


  • Minimize Water Exposure: Avoid submerging your hearing aids altogether. Opt for activities that keep your head above water.
  • Waterproof Accessories: Use waterproof sleeves or sweat guards to create a moisture barrier.
  • Thorough Drying: After exposure to water, dry your hearing aids with a soft, dry cloth. If available, use drying kits with desiccant packets.
  • Open-Ear Styles: Consider open-ear hearing aids for better airflow and reduced moisture buildup. Consult your hearing healthcare professional.
  • Regular Cleaning and Maintenance: Clean your hearing aids regularly with a dry brush. Follow the manufacturer’s care instructions to remove sweat, earwax, and debris.
  • Dry Your Ears: Gently dry your outer ears with a towel after swimming.


By following these practices, you can prevent swimmer’s ear and enjoy your summer.

A man holds an ear plug next to his ear.

Choosing the Right Protection


Proper ear protection can reduce the risk of swimmer’s ear.


  • Wear Earplugs: Use earplugs when swimming to prevent bacteria and water from entering the ear canal.
  • Keep Ears Clean and Dry: Avoid scratching or inserting objects into your ears. Dry your ears thoroughly after swimming or showering.
  • Avoid Polluted Water: Stay away from swimming in polluted water.
  • Alcohol and Vinegar Mixture: After swimming, apply a mixture of 1 drop of alcohol and one drop of white vinegar to your ears. This helps prevent bacterial growth.


These precautions help keep your ears safe and healthy.


Making Sure Waterproof Hearing Aids Don’t Cause Swimmer’s Ear


Hearing aids can trap moisture, increasing the risk of swimmer’s ear. Proper care and preventive measures can help.


  • Dry Your Ears Thoroughly: Ensure your ear canal and outer ear are fully dry before placing hearing aids back in.
  • Talk to Your Audiologist: Get personalized advice on preventing swimmer’s ear based on your hearing aids and lifestyle.
  • Consider Alternatives: Use temporary hearing protection like waterproof earplugs for extensive water activities.


By practicing safe hearing aid care and wear, you can prevent swimmer’s ear while enjoying the benefits of your hearing aids.


Don’t Let Moisture Ruin Your Summer


Enjoying summer activities shouldn’t mean dealing with swimmer’s ear pain. By following preventive measures and seeking timely treatment, you can keep your ears healthy and pain-free. Remember, keeping your ears dry and clean is vital to avoiding infections.


If you have any questions about your hearing or want to learn more about waterproof hearing aids, contact American Hearing + Audiology. Our experts can help you protect your ears and enjoy a splash-free, pain-free summer.