When to See a Doctor for Swimmer's Ear

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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young boy swimming in pool with goggles on

Swimmer’s ear is often associated with people who spend a lot of time in the water at the pool, but more often people get this outer ear infection, also known as otitis externa, from other kinds of exposure to moisture. No matter how you get it, it can cause itching, redness, discharge and pain when you tug on your earlobe. Here’s an overview of otitis externa to help you know when it’s time to call the doctor.

Common Causes of Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer’s ear can develop when moist conditions in your ear canal create a breeding ground for a bacterial infection (or less frequently, a fungus or virus), or it may develop from scrapes or tears of the thin lining of the ear canal.

Here are some of the common reasons people develop this outer ear infection:

  • Water that stays in the ear from swimming, showering or other exposure to water

  • Irritation of the ear canal from foreign objects, fingers, or cleaning the ear incorrectly

  • Allergies, eczema or a reaction to metals in earrings

  • Infection at the base of the skull

Swimmer’s Ear Treatment at Home

Before you treat swimmer’s ear at home, make sure you do not have a hole in your eardrum (perforation), which increases the risk of the spread of infection.

If the itching and redness of your outer ear isn’t severe, you can make a mild acidic solution, such as half alcohol and half vinegar, and use a dropper to apply it to the affected ear. You may want to lie on your side or have someone help you to make sure it gets to the affected area. You can also try over-the-counter ear drops made specifically to treat swimmer’s ear.

You can help prevent swimmer’s ear by keeping your ear canal clean and dry. Avoid putting your finger or other objects such as cotton swabs in your ear. When you clean your ears, use a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution to remove earwax that can trap water in your ear. Fill the ear dropper about halfway and drop it from above your ear. Let it fizz, and then pull on the top of your ear, which will let it drain. Make sure you dry your ears; you can buy drying drops or use your hair dryer on a low setting, several inches from your ear.

You can also use these methods to dry your ears after showering or swimming, particularly if you have recurrent infections. If you swim often, consider wearing earplugs to keep the water out of your ears.

When to See a Doctor for Swimmer’s Ear

If your outer ear remains red and itchy for more than a week, or if you have any of the following, contact your doctor:

  • Persistent itching

  • Pain that gets worse when you tug on your outer ear

  • Feeling that your ear is blocked

  • Drainage or pus leaking from the ear

  • Fever

  • Hearing loss

  • Severe pain in the neck, face or side of head

  • Swollen lymph nodes or swelling in the neck or near the ear

If you don’t treat swimmer’s ear, the infection may become more serious and harder to treat, and you may temporarily lose some hearing. In some cases, people can be hospitalized for advanced swimmer’s ear.
Your doctor can clean your ear safely and prescribe antibiotic drops, which is the most common treatment for otitis externa. Most cases of swimmer’s ear clear up in a week to 10 days. It’s important that you go to any follow-up appointments so your doctor can monitor your infection.

Whom to See for Swimmer’s Ear

Your primary care physician can clean your ear canal and prescribe antibiotic ear drops. Be sure to follow the doctor’s directions carefully when applying the drops. If you think your child may have swimmer’s ear, call the pediatrician.

For more advanced cases of swimmer’s ear, your doctor may suggest you see an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT), who may prescribe topical antibiotics. In more severe cases, you may be prescribed oral antibiotics and pain medication. Check your insurance policy to see if you need a referral to go to a specialist.

It’s important to attend to swimmer’s ear to reduce discomfort and make sure the infection doesn’t spread, but with the appropriate treatment and a home routine to keep your ears safely clean and dry, you can minimize the itching and redness of otitis externa.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 8
View All Ear, Nose and Throat Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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