Swimmer's ear: causes, symptoms, treatment

Do your ears feel itchy, sore and swollen? Perhaps they feel blocked or you have some discharge. If this is the case, then you may have swimmer’s ear. You might be thinking that you’ve not been swimming for a while, so it cannot possibly be that. However, swimmer’s ear is actually more common among people who spend a lot of time outdoors rather than swimming.

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear affects the area of skin that covers your outer ear canal, leading to the eardrum. It often happens as a result of water in the ear after swimming, diving, having a shower, bath, spending a lot of time outside in the rain or in humid conditions. While the ear can effectively protect itself from infection when it’s dry, if the ear becomes damp, bacteria can thrive. Combined with the warm conditions of your ear canal and the bacteria that can accumulate in water, water trapped by earwax can lead to infections.

Risk factors for swimmer’s ear

Swimmer’s ear can be caused by putting things in your ears such as cotton swabs or even your fingers, which can damage the delicate thin layer of skin lining your ear canal. Diabetes is a leading cause of otitis externa. The high blood sugar is a perfect environment for yeast to thrive. Other factors that can greatly increase your chance of developing swimmer’s ear include:

  • Swimming
  • Scratch in the ear
  • Getting water that in your ear that carries high levels of bacteria
  • Vigorous cleaning of the ear canal
  • Using earbuds or hearing aids
  • Eczema, skin irritation or allergies from hair dyes, hairspray or jewelry


Symptoms of swimmer’s ear generally start off as mild. However, without treatment, it can get worse or spread.

Mild symptoms

  • Your ear canal feels itchy
  • Some redness inside your ear
  • You have mild discomfort in your ear that worsens if you pull on your ear or push the little bump at the front of your ear
  • There is a small amount of clear discharge from your ear

Moderate symptoms

  • The itching in your ear is more intense
  • You experience pain which gets worse
  • The redness in your ear becomes more extensive
  • You are getting a lot of discharge from your ear
  • Your ears feel as if they are full or your ear canal is partially blocked by fluid, debris or swelling
  • Your hearing becomes reduced or muffled

Advanced symptoms

  • Pain becomes severe
  • Your ear canal is completely blocked
  • Your outer ear is very red and swollen
  • The lymph nodes in your neck become swollen
  • You have a fever

If you get prompt treatment, swimmer’s ear shouldn’t become serious, but there can be complications. Untreated swimmer’s ear can be one of the most easily avoided causes of hearing loss, long-term or deep tissue infection, damage to bone and cartilage or a more widespread infection develops.


There are some simple things you can do to avoid developing swimmer’s ear and protect your hearing health:

  • After bathing or swimming, dry your ears thoroughly, concentrating on the outer ear only, wiping it gently with a soft towel
  • Tip your head to one side to encourage water to drain out from your ear canal
  • Use a blow dryer on the lowest setting to dry your ears and hold it no closer than 0.3 meters away from your ear
  • When you go swimming, look out for any signs alerting you to high bacterial counts and avoid swimming on those days
  • Never try to dig out earwax or scratch an itch in your ear with objects such as a paperclip, hairpin or cotton swab
  • Gently put cotton wool in your ears when you use hair dye and hair spray
  • Use a warm compress such as a warm towel over the ear to help relieve pain


While prompt treatment can help prevent complications or more serious infections developing, swimmer’s ear treatment is generally straightforward and can include:

  • Painkillers to relieve discomfort
  • Antibiotic and anti-fungal ear drops and/or spray
  • A specialist may use a suction device to clean out the ear to help ear drops be as effective as possible
  • If the underlying cause is a skin or allergy problem, then your doctor will treat this first

Depending on the severity of your swimmer’s ear infection, you may find that your treatment takes some time to work and you may have to repeat the treatment.

Even if you have mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear, it’s a good idea to contact your doctor. However, if you have any pain in your ear, decreased hearing in one or both years, a fever or abnormal discharge from your ear then you should call your doctor immediately or visit the emergency room. If you are concerned that your long-term hearing has been affected then book a consultation with a licensed hearing care professional who will be able to evaluate your hearing.

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