Swimmer’s ear — also called otitis externa — is an infection of the outer ear canal. It often occurs in swimmers, but non-swimmers can also suffer from swimmer’s ear. When water is trapped in the ear canal or the ear is continuously wet, warm, stagnant water irritates and break down the skin in the ear, and provides an environment that allows bacteria that normally inhabit the ear canal multiply, causing infection and irritation of the ear canal. If the infection progresses it may involve the outer ear.

Swimmer’s ear is common in swimmers and in children during the summertime when swimming is a frequent activity. Swimmer’s ear may also develop after a single swim in a dirty water source such as a pond.


Since a dry ear is less likely to become infected, it is important to keep the ears free of moisture after swimming or bathing. Wearing earplugs during swimming can help. And, ensuring ear canals are dry after swimming can help as well. Q-tips should not be used for this purpose, because they may pack material deeper into the ear canal, remove protective earwax, and irritate the thin skin of the ear canal creating the perfect environment for an infection.

Prevention of Swimmer’s Ear:

  • Do not clear protective ear wax out of the ear canal.
  • Wear earplugs while swimming.
  • Dry ear canals after swimming — do not insert anything in the ear canal!

The safest way to dry your ears is with a hair blow-dryer. If you do not have a perforated eardrum, rubbing alcohol or a 50:50 mixture of alcohol and vinegar used as ear drops will evaporate excess water and keep your ears dry. Before using any drops in the ear, it is important to verify that you do not have a perforated eardrum. Check with your otolaryngologist if you have ever had a perforated, punctured, or injured eardrum, or if you have had ear surgery.

Signs and Symptoms

The most common symptoms of swimmer’s ear are mild to moderate pain that is aggravated by tugging on the outer ear. Other symptoms may include any of the following:

  • The sensation that the ear is blocked or full
  • Painful chewing
  • Drainage
  • Fever
  • Decreased hearing
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Intense pain that may radiate to the neck, face, or side of the head
  • The outer ear may appear to be pushed forward or away from the skull


Treatment for the early stages of swimmer’s ear includes careful cleaning of the ear canal and ear drops that inhibits bacterial growth. Mild acidic solutions such as boric or acetic acid (white vinegar) are effective for early infections.

For more severe infections, antibiotic ear drops are necessary. If the ear canal is completely swollen shut, a tampon-like sponge may be placed in the ear canal by your ENT specialist, so that the antibiotic drops will wick to the infected area.

Follow-up appointments are very important to monitor progress of the infection, to repeat ear cleaning, and to replace the ear wick as needed. These follow-up appointments are important to evaluate the condition of the ear canal and eardrum to adjust treatment to keep your ears in peak condition.

Your otolaryngologist has specialized equipment and expertise to effectively clean the ear canal and treat swimmer’s ear without causing further damage.

Why Do Ears Itch?

An itchy ear is a maddening symptom. Sometimes it is caused by a fungus or allergy, but more often it is a chronic dermatitis (skin inflammation) of the ear canal. One type is seborrheic dermatitis, a condition similar to dandruff in the scalp; the wax is dry, flaky, and abundant. Some patients with this problem do well by decreasing intake of foods that aggravate it, such as greasy foods, carbohydrates (sugar and starches), and chocolate. Doctors often prescribe a cortisone eardrop at bedtime when the ears itch. There is no long-term cure, but it can be kept controlled.

If you have itchy or painful ears, contact the ENT specialists at Alpine ENT to schedule your evaluation today!

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