What is Swimmer's Ear?

Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, M.D.
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.

Swimmer's ear is an infection of the outer part of the ear canal and the external ear. It occurs most commonly following extended exposure to water. Because the infection causes inflammation of the external ear, it is medically known as otitis externa.

The infected ear may be red, swollen, and painful. Movement of the head (such as chewing) and even touching the earlobe may cause severe pain. Sometimes itching precedes the onset of pain. You may also notice discharge from an affected ear. This discharge may be clear or may contain pus.

Otitis externa (or swimmer's ear) is different from the usual middle ear infection that children get, which is called otitis media. If the ear can be wiggled or pulled without discomfort or pain, then the ear infection is probably otitis media and not otitis externa.

The name swimmer's ear comes from the fact that the condition often occurs after spending time in the water. The water can break down the skin lining the ear canal, allowing it to become infected. Sticking foreign objects such as a finger in the ear or cleaning the ear canal with cotton swabs can also make the area more vulnerable to swimmer's ear.

While the condition may result from infection with a variety of bacteria and fungi found in contaminated water, the most common cause is the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This type of bacteria is common in water, soil and on plants.