Swimmer's ear is inflammation, irritation, or infection of the outer ear and ear canal. The medical term for swimmer's ear is otitis externa.
Swimmer's ear may be acute or chronic.
Swimmer's ear is more common among teenagers and young adults. It may occur with a middle ear infection or a respiratory infection such as a cold.
Swimming in unclean water can lead to swimmer's ear. Pseudomonas and other bacteria commonly often found in water can cause ear infections. Rarely, the infection may be caused by a fungus.
Other causes of swimmer's ear include:
Trying to clean wax from the ear canal with cotton swabs or small objects can damage the skin.
Long-term (chronic) swimmer's ear may be due to:
Symptoms of swimmer's ear include:
The health care provider will look inside your ears. The ear canal area will look red and swollen. The skin inside the ear canal may be scaly or shedding.
Touching or moving the outer ear will increase the pain. The eardrum may be hard to see because of a swelling in the outer ear. Or, the eardrum may have a hole in it. This is called a perforation.
A sample of fluid may be removed from the ear and sent to a lab to look for bacteria or fungus.
In most cases, you will need to use ear drops containing antibiotics for 10 to 14 days. If the ear canal is very swollen, a wick may be put into the ear to allow the drops to travel to the end of the canal. Your doctor or nurse can show you how to do this.
Other treatments may include:
People with chronic swimmer's ear may need long-term or repeated treatments to avoid complications.
Placing something warm against the ear may reduce pain.
Swimmer's ear most often gets better with the proper treatment.
The infection may spread to other areas around the ear, including the skull bone. In elderly people or those who have diabetes, a severe infection called malignant otitis externa may occur. This condition is treated with high-dose antibiotics given through a vein.
Call a health care provider if:
These steps can help protect your ears from further damage.
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.