Swimmer's Ear Infection (External Otitis)

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Quick GuideEar Infection Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Ear Infection Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

What are the signs and symptoms of swimmer's ear?

  • The first symptom of infection is that the ear will feel full, and it may itch.
  • Next, the ear canal will swell, and ear drainage will follow.
  • At this stage the ear will be very painful, especially with movement of the outside portion of the ear. The ear canal can swell shut, and the side of the face can become swollen.
  • Finally, the lymph nodes of the neck may enlarge, making it difficult or painful to open the jaw.
  • People with swimmer's ear may experience some temporary hearing loss in the affected ear.

What natural home remedies treatments help cure swimmer's ear?

Regardless of the cause, moisture and irritation will prolong the course of the problem. Removing water from the ears after swimming or water exposure also can help prevent swimmer's ear. Natural and home care for swimmer's ear includes measures such as:

  1. Keep the ears dry. While showering or swimming use an ear plug (one that is designed to keep water out), or use cotton with Vaseline on the outside to plug the ears.
  2. Scratching the inside of the ear or using cotton swabs should be avoided. This will only aggravate the irritated skin, and in most situations will make the condition worse.
  3. A hearing aid should be left out as much as possible until swelling and discharge stops.
  4. Follow your doctor's instructions for use of medications and do not stop using the medications until instructed to do so by your doctor. Use of a wick may be necessary for antibiotic treatment if the ear canal is very swollen.
  5. A homemade ear drip mix of 50% rubbing alcohol, 25% white vinegar, and 25% distilled water can be used to slightly acidify the ear canal can be used for prevention of infections as well as mild infection caused by bacteria or fungus.

What about swimmer's ear in children?

Swimmer's ear may develop in children after swimming in natural water sources or taking part in other water activities. The child may complain of intense pain on movement of the ear, itching, or a sense of fullness. Discharge from the ear may occur. Treatment involves antibiotics, pain control medications, and sometimes antihistamines to reduce itching. Ear symptoms in children can also arise from middle ear infections (otitis media) or foreign bodies in the ear. Your doctor can determine whether your child's ear pain is due to swimmer's ear or another condition.

How can swimmer's ear be prevented?

  • Decrease exposure to water. If you are prone to infections it is advisable that you use an ear plug when you bathe or swim. Swimmer's ear drops or alcohol drops (Swim-EAR®) used in the ear after water exposure followed by drying the ear with a hair dryer held at arm's length will often help keep the ear free of moisture
  • Do not insert instruments, scratch, or use cotton swabs in the ears.
  • Try to keep the ear free of wax. This may require visits to the doctor to have your ears cleaned.
  • You should not attempt to put anything into the ear canal (such as a swab) to try to remove ear wax that is deep within the ear canal.
  • If you already have an ear infection, or if you have a hole in your eardrum, or if you have had ear surgery or ear tubes, first consult your doctor prior to swimming and before you use any type of ear drop.
  • A preventative ear drop solution can be cheaply and easily made by mixing equal parts of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar (50:50 mixture). This solution will increase the rate of evaporation of water in the ear canal and has antibacterial properties. Using this solution to rinse the ear before and after water exposure can serve as a protective measure against infection.
  • Mineral oil ear drops can be used to protect the ear from water when a dry crusty skin condition exists.
  • A 3% solution of hydrogen peroxide can be used for occasional ear cleaning to help remove ear wax that can cause water to build up in the ear. Apply using an ear dropper (about half full). The solution will fizz slightly. Turn your head to the side and pull back on the top of your ear so that the solution fills the ear canal. Afterward, make sure to use one of the methods described above for drying the ear.
  • You can also use a hair dryer on low setting to dry the ear canal. This can also be done after using the drying ear drops as described previously.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/16/2017

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