March 31, 2006 -- Ear drops are the best medicine for swimmer's ear,
according to the first-ever recommendations on how to treat the common
Swimmer's ear affects about one in every 100-250 Americans each year and is
caused by water trapped in the ear canal. Although associated with swimming and areas with warmer
climates and higher humidity, any person can get swimmer's ear, also known in
medical terms as acute otitis externa.
The trapped water causes bacteria in the ear canal to multiply and leads to
infection and inflammation of the external ear canal. Symptoms include pain,
swelling, and itching of the external ear canal and outer ear.
The guidelines recommend using ear drops to treat swimmer's ear locally and
say that oral antibiotics should not be used unless the infection has spread
outside the ear canal or if there are other symptoms that call for oral
A panel of experts from the fields of head and neck surgery, pediatrics,
family medicine, infectious disease, internal medicine, emergency medicine, and
medical informatics compiled the guidelines based on a review of research on
The results showed that swimmer's ear is often severe and can interfere with
work or leisure activities. With proper therapy, the pain usually improves
after one day and the condition completely resolves within four to seven
Experts say antiseptic and antibiotic ear drops are the preferred treatment
for most cases of swimmer's ear because they offer safe, prompt, and effective
relief while not promoting antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Oral antibiotics are not recommended for initial treatment of swimmer's ear
because overuse of antibiotics can increase the spread of antibiotic-resistant
bacteria, are associated with more side effects, and may be less effective than
Other recommendations include:
People with eardrum tubes or perforated eardrums should use one of the
newer antibiotic ear drops that are approved for this purpose and do not cause
Ear drops are only effective when used properly. Health care providers
should inform patients how to use ear drops, clean obstructing debris from the
ear canal, and insert a wick, when necessary, to allow the drops to enter the
ear canal if it is very swollen.
Ear candles are not recommended for treating swimmer's ear because they
have never been proven effective and have dangerous side effects that include
burns and perforated eardrum.
Patients should avoid water sports for 7-10 days during treatment.