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Swimmer's Ear (Otitis Externa)

Condition Basics

What is swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear (otitis externa) is an inflammation or infection of the ear canal, the passage that leads from the outer ear to the eardrum. This condition is called swimmer's ear, because it commonly occurs in people who have been swimming. But other people can get it too.

What causes it?

You can get swimmer's ear when bacteria or fungus grows in your ear canal. This happens when water, sand, or other small debris irritates the delicate skin in the ear canal. Other things that can irritate the ear canal include hearing aids, lots of ear cleaning, and eczema of the ear canal.

Swimmer's ear is more likely if you have a very narrow or hairy ear canal; live in a warm, humid climate; have little or no earwax; have lots of ear infections; or have eczema or dry skin. If you have had swimmer's ear in the past, you are more likely to get it again.

What are the symptoms?

Swimmer's ear can be very painful. The pain can get worse when you touch the earlobe or another part of the outer ear or when you chew. Other symptoms can include itching, a feeling of fullness in the ear, and a yellowish or brownish discharge from the ear. Your ear canal may be swollen. In severe cases, the outer ear can be red and swollen too.

How is it diagnosed?

A doctor can usually tell whether you have swimmer's ear by looking into your ear and asking questions about your symptoms.

How can you prevent it?

You may be able to prevent swimmer's ear.

  • Do not scratch or clean the inside of the ear with cotton swabs, bobby pins, your fingernails, or other objects.
  • Avoid prolonged use of earplugs and in-ear headphones. Like cotton swabs, these can cause irritation and itching and can plug the ear with wax.
  • Keep soap, bubble bath, and shampoo out of the ear canal. These products can cause itching and irritation.
  • Keep your ears dry.
    • After you swim or shower, shake your head to remove water from the ear canal.
    • Gently dry your ears with the corner of a tissue or towel, or use a hair dryer on its lowest setting. Hold the dryer 8 to 10 centimetres (3 to 4 inches) away from the ear.
    • Put a few drops of rubbing alcohol or rubbing alcohol mixed with an equal amount of white vinegar in your ears after you swim or shower. You can also use over-the-counter drops, such as Swim-Ear, to help prevent swimmer's ear. Gently wiggle the outside of the ear to let the liquid enter the ear canal. It's important to keep the liquid in the ear canal for 3 to 5 minutes
  • Do not swim in dirty or polluted water.

Credits

Current as of: December 2, 2020

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Charles M. Myer III MD - Otolaryngology

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