What Are the Treatments for Swimmer's Ear?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on March 19, 2024
4 min read

If you come back from a day at the water park with a case of swimmer's ear, don't plan on just trying to shake it off. See your doctor to get treatment that fights the infection and eases your pain.

For swimmer's ear treatments to work well, your doctor will first need to gently clean out any gunk that's blocking your ear canal, like fluid, dead skin, and extra wax. She may use hydrogen peroxide, a suction device, or a special tool called an ear curette.

Your doctor will also want to check to make sure that your eardrum is healthy. If it's torn (perforated), regular swimmer's ear treatments may not work. You may need to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist for treatment.

You'll probably leave your doctor's office with a prescription for eardrops to use at home. It's the most common treatment. The eardrops fight the infection and help your ear heal.

Depending on your situation, these drops might have:

  • Antibiotics to kill bacteria
  • Steroids to help with swelling
  • Antifungal medicines, if your symptoms are caused by a fungus
  • Chemicals that restore a healthy balance to your ear canal, so it's harder for germs to grow

Follow the bottle's instructions for putting in the eardrops. Usually, you need to:

  • Tilt your head or lie on your side when you put the drops into your ear
  • Stay in that position for 3 to 5 minutes to let the drops soak in
  • Put a cotton ball into your ear, and leave it there for 20 minutes to keep the drops in
  • Repeat three to four times a day, or as your doctor recommends

You may find it easier to have somebody in your family put in the drops for you. They'll probably have better aim. If the drops hurt because they're cold, warm the bottle first by holding it in your hands.

Once you start treatment, it will probably take about a week before your symptoms go away. In the meantime, you can take steps to feel better and help your treatment work.

Use painkillers if you need them. Over-the-counter acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen can help with pain. If they're not enough, your doctor may give you a prescription painkiller.

Use the eardrops for as long as it says on the bottle. That's usually 7 to 14 days. You may start feeling better after just a few days, but don't stop early. If you do, the infection could come back.

Keep your ears dry. When you shower, gently put cotton balls coated with petroleum jelly into your ears to keep out water. And don't swim until your doctor says it's OK -- probably for 7 to 10 days.

Don't use headphones or a hearing aid. Wait until you feel better before you put anything into your ear.

Protect your ears from chemicals in cosmetics. For some people, hairsprays, hair dyes, and other products can irritate the skin and cause swimmer's ear. Stop using anything that you think could be causing a problem -- or at least put cotton balls into your ears first.

Call your doctor if you're not feeling somewhat better in 36 to 48 hours. You may need a different approach to get rid of the infection.

Most folks find they can get their swimmer's ear under control with eardrops. But if the infection is more serious or has spread, you may need other types of treatment.

Ear wicks. If your ear canal is very swollen, it can block eardrops from getting far enough into your ear. If this happens, your doctor might put a wick into your ear. It's just a piece of cotton that helps the drops get to where they need to go. Your doctor may need to replace the wick a few times.

Oral or IV antibiotics. If your infection is hard to treat or severe -- or it has spread to nearby tissue, cartilage, or bone -- you may need more powerful antibiotics. One serious infection is called malignant (necrotizing) external otitis, which is more common in older people with diabetes and immune problems like HIV.

Once you start treatment, you'll probably start feeling better within a few days. If your symptoms last longer than 10 days -- or if they get worse -- call your doctor.

When you're better, take steps so you won't get it again. Wear earplugs when you're swimming, and dry your ears carefully after they get wet. And don't pick or scratch inside your ears, since that can cause swimmer's ear.

Above all, follow the advice your mom might have told you: Never stick anything in your ear that's smaller than your elbow.