Swimmer’s Ear

Reviewed by Charge Audiologist Ron Trounson

Table of Contents

What Causes Swimmer's Ear?

Swimmer’s ear, medically referred to as otitis externa, is an inflammation or infection of the outer ear canal.

Under normal conditions, waxy, water repellent secretions from sebaceous and apocrine glands protect your ears. However, when these usual barriers are lost, the skin becomes inflamed and macerated, which increases the risk of invasion from bacterial or fungal organisms.

A common cause of the breakdown of this barrier happens when water enters the ear canal and doesn’t drain out, such as when you go swimming or wash your hair.

When the ear canal is wet for an extended period, the skin becomes soft and soggy. This makes ears more susceptible to injury, but it also creates an ideal environment for bacteria or fungi to flourish and cause an infection.

Other causes and contributing conditions may include:

  • Cleaning inside the ear canal with cotton buds, hair clips or other sharp objects.
  • Shampoos, hairsprays and hair dyes that may irritate and emaciate your skin.
  • Eczema or dermatitis is causing the skin to break and no longer act as a protective barrier.
  • Insufficient (cerumen) earwax production to protect your ear canal.
Swimmer's ear anatomy diagram & human ear
Swimmer's ear anatomy diagram and human ear. CNX OpenStax, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

8 Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear

Ear pain is the most common complaint about swimmer’s ear or otitis externa. With enough swelling and discharge, conductive hearing loss is also common.

  1. Pain, swelling and tenderness in the ear canal.
  2. The outer ear may be sensitive and sore to touch.
  3. Itchiness in and around the ear.
  4. Foul-smelling pus in the ear canal.
  5. Fever, or an increase in body temperature above the average normal temperature.
  6. Conductive hearing loss
  7. Hearing noises in the ear such as ringing, buzzing, or humming.

Treatment for Swimmer’s Ear

Treatment is aimed at cleaning the ear canal and keeping it dry.

In mild cases, a healthcare practitioner may clean the outer ear canal using a light suction device called Microsuction. A doctor may also prescribe an ointment or ear drops for you to use at home.

A test swab might be taken and sent to a pathology lab to identify a bacterial or fungal infection.

Sometimes antibiotics are needed for serious bacterial infections. Take the entire course as prescribed by your doctor, even if you feel better after a day or two.

Ear plugs help to prevent swimmers ear
Ear plugs help to prevent swimmers ear.

How to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear

Earplugs or cotton wool coated in Vaseline to keep water out of your ear canal are good options when swimming or bathing.

When washing your hair, tip your head forward, and your ears will act as umbrellas. Washing your hair in this way will minimise the amount of water that enters your ear canals.

Any water activities like swimming, surfing, and diving should be avoided for the infection duration and at least one week after.

Author Bio

Jerika Pring

Jerika Pring

I received my Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 2009 and have 10 years of nursing experience effectively and efficiently managing both patients and staff. I've had experience in Medical and Surgical Wards, Otolaryngology, Gynecology and Obstetrics, Neurology, Pediatrics, Aged Care, and worked as a certified laser technician.

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