Health Information

Swimmer’s Ear in Children

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) is an inflammation of the external ear canal. Swimmer’s ear is caused by fungi or bacteria. Water that stays in the ear canal during swimming, for example, may let bacteria and fungi grow.

What causes swimmer’s ear?

Many different things can make it more likely for your child to get swimmer's ear. Swimming or being in other wet, humid conditions are common causes. Other possible causes are:

  • Rough cleaning of the ear canal
  • Injury to the ear canal
  • Dry skin in the ear canal
  • Foreign object in the ear canal
  • Too much earwax
  • Skin conditions such as eczema and other kinds of dermatitis

Who is at risk for swimmer’s ear?

Children are more likely to get swimmer’s ear if they:

  • Go swimming or get their ears wet in other ways, such as dipping their head under water when bathing or showering
  • Injure the ear canal, such as clean it too often or scratch it
  • Use hearing aids, earphones, or swimming caps
  • Have skin irritation from allergies or other skin conditions

What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear can cause the following symptoms:

  • Redness of the outer ear
  • Itching in the ear
  • Pain, especially when touching or wiggling the ear lobe
  • Drainage from the ear
  • Swollen glands in the neck
  • Swollen ear canal
  • Muffled hearing or hearing loss
  • Full or plugged-up feeling in the ear

The symptoms of swimmer's ear may look like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is swimmer’s ear diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask questions about your child’s health history and current symptoms. He or she will examine your child, including the ears. The provider may use a lighted instrument called an otoscope to look in your child’s ear. This will help the provider know if there is also an infection in the middle ear called otitis media. Although this infection usually does not occur with swimmer’s ear, some children may have both types of infections.

Your child’s healthcare provider may also take a culture of the drainage from the ear to help figure out the best treatment.

How is swimmer’s ear treated?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Swimmer’s ear, when properly treated by a healthcare provider, usually clears up within 7 to 10 days. Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotic ear drops
  • Corticosteroid ear drops
  • Pain medicine
  • Keeping the ear dry

What are the complications of swimmer's ear?

Complications of swimmer’s ear include:

  • Temporary hearing loss from a swollen and inflamed ear canal
  • Ear infections that keep coming back
  • Bone and cartilage damage
  • Infection of the tissue around the ear 
  • Infections that spread from the ear to the bones of the head or skull

Can swimmer’s ear be prevented?

The following are some tips to help prevent swimmer’s ear:

  • Use ear plugs for swimming or bathing.
  • Gently clean your child’s ear canal.
  • Dry ears well, especially after swimming.

Another tip to help dry the ears is to use a hair dryer set to the low or cool setting. Hold the dryer at least 12 inches from your child’s head. Wave the dryer slowly back and forth. Don’t hold it still.

Your child’s healthcare provider may recommend drops to help dry the ears.

Key points about swimmer’s ear

  • Swimmer’s ear is also called otitis externa. It is an inflammation of the external ear canal.
  • Water that stays in the ear canal during swimming may let bacteria and fungi grow.
  • Swimmer’s ear usually clears up in 7 to 10 days when treated.
  • To help prevent swimmer’s ear, dry your child’s ears well after swimming or bathing. And gently clean your child’s ears.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.