Health Library

Health Library

Otitis Externa (Swimmer's Ear)

What is otitis externa?

Picture of two young girls giggling by the side of the pool

Otitis externa, also called swimmer's ear, is an inflammation of the external ear canal. Swimmer's ear is caused by fungi or bacteria. Water that remains trapped in the ear canal (when swimming, for example) may provide a source for the growth of bacteria and fungi.

What causes swimmer's ear?

Many different factors can increase your child's chance of developing swimmer's ear. As the name implies, one of the factors is excessive wetness as with swimming, although it can occur without swimming. Other possible causes of this infection include the following:

  • Being in warm, humid places

  • Harsh cleaning of the ear canal

  • Injury to the ear canal

  • Dry ear canal skin

  • Foreign body in the ear canal

  • Excess ear wax

  • Eczema and other forms of dermatitis

What are the symptoms of swimmer's ear?

The following are the most common symptoms of swimmer's ear. Symptoms may include:

  • Redness of the outer ear

  • Itching in the ear

  • Pain, especially when touching or wiggling the ear lobe

  • Drainage from the ear

  • Swollen glands in the neck

  • Swollen ear canal

  • Muffled hearing or hearing loss

  • Full or plugged-up feeling in the ear

The symptoms of swimmer's ear may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.

How is swimmer's ear diagnosed?

Swimmer's ear may be diagnosed with a complete medical history and physical exam. Your child's health care provider may use an otoscope, a lighted instrument that helps to examine the ear and to aid in the diagnosis of ear disorders. This will help your child's provider know if there is also an infection in the middle ear, called otitis media. Although this infection usually does not occur with swimmer's ear, some children may have both types of infections.

Your child's provider may also take a culture of the drainage from the ear to help determine proper treatment.

Treatment of swimmer's ear

Swimmer's ear, when properly treated by a health care provider, usually clears up within 7 to 10 days. Treatment may include

  • Antibiotic ear drops

  • Corticosteroid ear drops (to help decrease the swelling)

  • Pain medication

  • Keeping the ear dry, as directed by your child's doctor

Preventing swimmer's ear

The following are some hints to help prevent swimmer's ear:

  • Use ear plugs for swimming or bathing.

  • Do not aggressively clean your child's ear canal.

Otitis Externa (Swimmer's Ear) - WellSpan Health

Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN
© 2014 WellSpan Health. All Rights Reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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