What Is Swimmer's Ear?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on March 23, 2024
4 min read

If you're like a lot of folks, you probably think of swimmer's ear as an unwelcome souvenir of a beach vacation. And while the painful ear condition is often linked to a dunk in the ocean or the pool, the truth is you can get it on dry land, too.

parts of the ear

No matter how you got your swimmer's ear, once you learn to recognize the signs, you have plenty of options to treat it.

Swimmer's ear, which has the medical name of otitis externa, is an infection in your ear canal. That's the tube that runs from the hole on the outside of your ear to your eardrum.

Swimmer's ear is different from the common ear infection that your young child often gets after a cold. Those are middle ear infections, or "otitis media" in doctor speak, and they happen deeper in the ear, behind the eardrum.

Usually, swimmer's ear is caused by bacteria, but it can sometimes be brought on by a virus or fungus. Symptoms you may get are:

  • Itchiness in the ear
  • Pain, which can become severe
  • Trouble hearing (sound may seem muffled as your ear canal swells)
  • Fluid or pus draining out of the ear

Here's one way to tell which type of ear infection you have. If it hurts when you tug or press your ear, you may have swimmer's ear.

Most of the time, your ear fights off the germs that cause swimmer's ear on its own. You can thank your earwax for that. While it doesn't get much respect, earwax helps protect the ear canal from damage and makes it hard for germs to grow.

But if the skin gets scratched, germs can get into your ear canal and cause an infection. Some common reasons you may get swimmer's ear are:

  • Sticking stuff in your ear. If you use cotton swabs, fingers, hairpins, pen caps, or anything else to clean your ears, it can rub away the protective earwax or scratch your skin. Even earbuds, earplugs, and hearing aids can have this effect, especially if you use them a lot.
  • Moisture trapped in your ear. When water gets stuck in your ear canal after swimming -- or after you soak in a hot tub or even take a shower or bath -- it can remove some of the earwax and soften the skin, which makes it easier for germs to get in. 

    Humid weather and sweat can cause the same problem. Germs like a warm, wet place to grow, so moisture trapped in your ear is perfect for them.

Other things can play a role in swimmer's ear, like:

  • Your age. While swimmer's ear can happen to anyone, it's most common in kids and early teenagers.
  • Narrow ear canals. Kids often have ear canals that are small and don't drain as well.
  • Skin reactions and conditions. Sometimes hair products, cosmetics, and jewelry can irritate your skin and raise the odds of getting swimmer's ear. So can skin problems like eczema and psoriasis.

Whether you got your swimmer's ear after a dunk in the pool or because an infection set in while you were on dry land, the symptoms are the same. You may notice things like:

  • Itchy feeling inside your ear
  • Pain in the ear, which can be severe
  • Your ear hurts when you move your head or gently pull on your earlobe
  • Tenderness inside your ear
  • Fluid drains out of the ear
  • A bad-smelling, yellowish discharge from the ear
  • You don't hear as well (things sound muffled)

If you have ear pain, don't wait -- see your doctor right away. Getting treatment quickly can stop an infection from getting worse.

During your appointment, your doctor will look in your ear and may gently clean it out. This will help treatments work better.

Then, you'll probably get eardrops that may have antibiotics, steroids, or other ingredients to fight the infection and help with swelling. In some cases, you may need to take antibiotic pills, too.

Most of the time, swimmer's ear starts to feel better within 2 days of starting treatment. But sometimes, it can get worse or lead to other problems, such as:

  • Long-term swimmer's ear (chronic otitis externa). This is when swimmer's ear doesn't go away within 3 months. It can happen if you have hard-to-treat bacteria, fungus, allergies, or skin conditions like psoriasis or eczema. Your doctor may need to test a sample of any fluid in your ear to help you decide on the best treatment.
  • Other infections. Sometimes, the bacteria can spread deeper into your skin or to other parts of your body. One rare condition is malignant otitis externa, which happens when the infection moves into bone and cartilage in your head. It's a medical emergency, and it's most common in older people with diabetes and people with HIV or other immune system problems.

Treatment for these infections is with more powerful antibiotics, either by mouth or through a needle (IV).

Always check with your doctor if you see any signs of an ear infection. Call if you feel dizzy or have ringing in your ears, which means you may have a more serious problem that needs to get checked out.

Also, call your doctor if you have:

  • Severe pain. They can suggest medicine that can give you relief.
  • Rash on your scalp or near your ear. You may have seborrheic dermatitis or herpes zoster (shingles). Your doctor can recommend treatment.