It starts with an itch inside your ear. Your ear opening may look a little red. There’s also discomfort when you pull on your outer ear or push the little bump in front of your ear’s opening. You might even have some clear fluid draining from your ear. What’s going on?
These are all symptoms of swimmer’s ear, a condition that can affect people of all ages. In the beginning, swimmer’s ear is usually pretty mild. But without treatment, the symptoms of swimmer’s ear can go from mild to severe, causing worsening pain and serious complications.
Read on to learn about swimmer’s ear, what causes it and when to get help.
What is swimmer’s ear?
Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear canal which runs from the eardrum to the outside of your head. Another name for swimmer’s ear is otitis externa.
Swimmer’s ear vs. ear infection: What’s the difference?
Swimmer’s ear is a common type of ear infection that affects the outer ear. It’s also possible to get infections in your inner and middle ear.
One difference between swimmer’s ear and other types of ear infections is what causes them. Swimmer’s ear happens when things from the outside get into your ear canal, causing bacterial growth.
Inner and middle ear infections usually follow an illness such as the flu, a cold or allergies, which causes fluid buildup or inflammation inside the ear.
What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear?
Symptoms of swimmer’s ear change, based on how far along it is. Getting treatment for swimmer’s ear while it’s still in the early stages can help keep it from getting worse.
Mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear
- An itch in your ear
- Some redness in your ear canal
- Discomfort when you push or pull on your ear
- Clear, odorless fluid coming from your ear
Moderate symptoms of swimmer’s ear
- Increasing itchiness
- Ear pain that gets worse when you chew or move your ear
- An ear canal that looks more red
- A feeling of fullness in your ear
- Muffled hearing or hearing loss
- Lots of fluid coming from the ear – it may be yellow or yellow-green, and it’s often smelly
Advanced symptoms of swimmer’s ear
- Severe ear pain that may spread to your face, neck or side of your head
- Swelling in your ear canal, outer ear or glands in your neck
- Redness both in the ear canal and the outside of the ear
Of course, if you have an itchy, red, swollen ear canal, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have swimmer’s ear. You may have a different type of ear infection, allergies or a skin irritation. Here’s a way to tell: if it doesn’t hurt when you pull on your earlobe, it’s probably not swimmer’s ear.
But even if it’s not swimmer’s ear, it’s still a good idea to talk to a doctor and get treatment for whatever is causing your ear problems.
What causes swimmer’s ear?
Despite the name, you don’t need to go swimming to get swimmer’s ear. It can happen whenever dirty water, sand, dirt or other debris gets into your ear canal and stays there for a long time or comes in contact with irritated skin, causing bacteria or fungi to grow.
Usually, water that gets in your ear flows out on its own so that the ear canal can dry. Your earwax can also kill the fungi and bacteria that’s in the dirty water or debris. But this process is interrupted when you get swimmer’s ear.
How does the ear canal get irritated?
If the skin of your ear canal is injured or damaged, you’re more likely to get swimmer’s ear. Here are a few reasons why that might happen:
- Your ear canal is too dry– A healthy amount of earwax helps protect you against infection. Cleaning your ears too often can hurt the skin, making it more likely that you’ll get an infection.
- You stick things in your ears– If you’re in the habit of putting fingers, pens, pins or Q-tips in your ears, you’re more likely to damage the skin of your ear canal. Infections are more likely to form if you have broken or irritated skin in your ears.
- You have a skin condition in your ear– If your skin is irritated or inflamed because of eczema or psoriasis, it’s more likely to crack open or become injured.
- You wear a hearing aid– You could have irritation in the ear canal if your hearing aid doesn’t fit well or is causing an allergic reaction. If your hearing aid seems uncomfortable, talk to an audiologist about a hearing aid evaluation.
How does water get stuck in your ear?
Usually, when water gets in your ear, it comes out quickly and easily. But sometimes, it’s difficult for water to flow out once it gets in. Here are some reasons why:
- You have a lot of ear hair– Hair in the ear canal can trap dirty water or debris.
- Your ear canal is swollen– This can happen if the skin of the ear canal is injured or irritated.
- There’s impacted earwax– While a healthy amount of earwax keeps your ears safe from swimmer’s ear, impacted earwax can make it more likely to trap dirty water or debris, causing germs to grow.
- You live in a warm, humid climate– If the air is always humid, it’s difficult for your ear canal to dry out.
How can you tell if you have water in your ear?
If you have water in your ears, your ears may feel plugged and you may have muffled hearing. You may also have ear pain, a loss of balance, ringing in the ears, a runny nose or a sore throat.
Is swimmer’s ear contagious?
No, swimmer’s ear doesn’t spread between people.
How long does swimmer’s ear last?
Mild cases of swimmer’s ear sometimes clear up on their own within a few weeks. But if your swimmer’s ear has advanced symptoms, it can take longer to go away. With treatment, swimmer’s ear will likely go away in 7-10 days.
What are the complications of swimmer’s ear?
Swimmer’s ear usually isn’t serious, but if left untreated, it could cause problems such as:
- Temporary hearing loss (hearing usually returns to normal after the infection is gone)
- Ear infections that don’t go away or keep coming back
- Damage to the bones and cartilage in your ear
- An infection in nearby tissue, the skull, brain or nerves
If you have complications following a swimmer’s ear infection, your primary care doctor may recommend you make an appointment with an ear, nose and throat doctor. They specialize in ear care and can help you get back to feeling, and hearing, better.
When should I go to the doctor for swimmer’s ear?
Even if you have mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear, it’s a good idea to talk to your primary care doctor. They’ll be able to determine what’s causing your symptoms and get you on the road to recovery.
Seek immediate medical care if you experience any of the following:
- Severe pain in or around the ear
- Hearing loss or changes
- Fluid coming from your ears that’s yellow, yellow-green or smelly
Your doctor will be able to tell if it’s swimmer’s ear by looking in your ear and asking some questions. If you have pus coming from your ear, your doctor may collect a sample to send in for testing.
You can also start a Virtuwell visit for swimmer’s ear any time, day or night to get treatment for swimmer’s ear. They’ll see anyone over the age of 5 years old.
How to get rid of swimmer’s ear
During the appointment, your doctor will provide information about how to make sure that your infection doesn’t get worse. They may recommend one or more of the following as part of your swimmer’s ear treatment plan:
Prescription eardrops are a common treatment for swimmer’s ear. They may contain steroids, antibiotics or antifungal ingredients depending on the cause or severity of your ear infection. The ear drops work by calming the inflammation while also killing the bacteria or fungus causing the infection. Most of the time, you’ll place drops in your ear 3-4 times a day for five days.
Holding a warm washcloth to your ear can help keep the pain away. Another option is using a heating pad on low – just make sure you don’t fall asleep while it’s on since you could burn yourself.
Over-the-counter pain medication
Acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) may make you feel more comfortable. But not every medication is appropriate for children. If you’re not sure what you should give your child, contact your doctor or nurse line.
Keep your ears dry
It’s best to keep water out of your ear until the infection is gone. If you swim, use a swimming cap that fits snuggly over your ears and consider using soft earplugs when showering or bathing. Also, carefully towel off your ears any time they get wet.
Tips to prevent swimmer’s ear
If you’ve had swimmer’s ear before, you’re more likely to get it again. Keeping germy water out of your ear goes a long way toward preventing future ear infections. You’ll have the best protection if you don’t swim in dirty water and keep soap, bubble bath and shampoo out of the ear canal. You may also consider using earplugs when swimming or showering – especially if you’ve had ear tube surgery.
In addition, take the steps below to protect the skin in your ear canal and keep the insides of your ears as dry as possible.
How to avoid irritating your skin
Remember, you’re more likely to get swimmer’s ear if the skin in the ear canal is damaged. So, anything you do to protect your ear should help reduce your chance of swimmer’s ear.
- Don’t stick anything in your ear.Even Q-tips and earwax removal tools can damage the ear canal and cause impacted earwax. There are other ways to clean your ears without Q-tips.
- Don’t overclean your ears.While earwax may seem unappealing, it helps protect your ears from injury and may even kill the bacteria and fungi that can cause swimmer’s ear.
- If possible, limit use of earplugs and earbuds.If you use them a lot, they could irritate your ear canal or lead to earwax buildup. Safe use of earbuds involves cleaning them at least weekly. Also, change your earplugs regularly.
How to remove water from your ear
If dirty water sits in your ear for too long, it’s possible you could get swimmer’s ear. These are things you can try to get the water out of your ear:
- Over-the-counter (OTC) eardrops– Fluid-drying eardrops such as Swim Ear can help dry out your ear. The isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol in the eardrops combine with the water in the ear to help dry out your ear.
- Use a hairdryer– Use a hairdryer on the lowest setting to gently dry your ears. Just point it at your ears for a couple of minutes from a safe distance. Consider doing this each time you shower or get your ears wet.
- Chewing and yawning– Moving your mouth can relieve pressure inside your ear, making it easier for water to flow out.
- Pull your ear– Tilt your head so the plugged ear faces the floor. Then pull back the top part of your ear. This straightens out the ear canal, allowing trapped water to drain.
- Push it out– Close your mouth, plug your nose and then push air into your cheeks. This can help lower the pressure in your ears, allowing the water to come out.
- Create suction– Place a flat hand over your affected ear and push down for a couple of seconds. When you remove your hand, the suction effect may loosen the trapped water.
Getting treatment for swimmer’s ear
If you notice symptoms of swimmer’s ear, it’s time to talk to a doctor. While the symptoms can be mild in the beginning, untreated swimmer’s ear can get worse and cause serious problems. The good news is that swimmer’s ear usually goes away pretty quickly with treatment.
For people of all ages, an in-person or video visit with a primary care doctor can get you an official diagnosis and personalized treatment plan. Or for those 5 years old and older, online treatment through Virtuwell is available anytime day or night.