Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa)
What is swimmer's ear?
Swimmer's ear is infection of the lining of the outer ear canal. Other names for it are otitis externa and ‘tropical ear’.
- itching inside the ear;
- tenderness of the outer ear, which may be sensitive to the lightest touch; and
- reduced hearing.
This infection occurs when the skin lining the ear canal is wet for long periods. This usually happens if water is trapped in the ear canal after swimming, or perhaps washing the hair. It can also be a problem for people living in tropical climates, where the atmosphere is generally damp. Wet skin becomes soft and soggy, making it much easier for bacterial, and sometimes fungal, infections to take hold. These infections can be from organisms that normally live in the ear canal or from organisms introduced when contaminated or polluted water enters the ear canal.
Treatment of swimmer's ear
Treatment usually consists of drops containing a combination of corticosteroids and antibiotics. Sometimes a doctor must clean out the ear and a pack is inserted to bring the infection under control.
Prevention of swimmer's ear
- Drying. It should be possible to avoid swimmer's ear by careful attention to drying the ears after swimming and showering. This can be achieved by shaking your head (something dogs do naturally after they have been in water) and gently inserting the rolled-up corner of a towel or handkerchief into the ear canal to absorb the water. Cotton buds should not be used as they are too firm and can easily damage the delicate tissues of the ear, such as the ear drum.
- Drops. There are some types of drops, for example Aquaear, that can be used by people with recurrent problems to help prevent swimmer's ear. They work by providing a local drying effect in the ears after swimming and making the conditions in the ear canal inhospitable to bacteria.
- Ear plugs. Some frequent swimmers may find ear plugs to be of help. Cotton wool mixed with Vaseline can be an economical form of such protection.
Last Reviewed: 07/11/2015
1. Mayo Clinic. Swimmer's ear. Reviewed July 2013. Accessed Sept 2015.
2. Rosenfeld RM, Brown L, Cannon CR, et al. Clinical practice guideline: Acute otitis externa. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surgeon. 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24491310
3. American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery. Swimmer's ear. 2015. http://www.entnet.org/content/swimmers-ear
Ear problems: self-care
Common ear problems include otitis media and glue ear (which mostly affect children), ear wax build-up and swimmer's ear (otitis externa). Find out what products are available for ear problems.
Common ear problems include otitis media, glue ear, ear wax and swimmer's ear.
Otitis media in children
Otitis media (middle ear infection) is a common childhood illness causing earache and fever. It usually gets better quickly with pain relievers but sometimes antibiotics are needed.
Eardrum perforation can be caused by infection, a blow to the ear, injury from an object inserted in the ear, or exposure to a sudden loud noise.
Middle ear infection and grommets
A grommet is a tiny tube inserted into the eardrum to allow air to enter the middle ear. Grommets can be used to treat glue ear and recurrent middle ear infections.