Swimmers Ear

Swimmer's Ear, medically known as Otitis Externa or Acute External Otitis, can be described as a bacterial infection that occurs in the outer ear canal. This is the canal that runs between your eardrum and the outside of your head.

The infection is likely to occur after swimming, as water that remains in your ears creates a moist environment, ideal for bacterial growth. You could also get swimmer's ear if the thin layer of skin that lines your ear canal gets damaged by a ear bud or a cotton swab.

Swimmers Ear Picture

Swimmer's ear is not a serious infection and can be treated quite easily with the right medication. In most cases, prompt treatment prevents serious infections and complications from developing. However, if the condition is left unchecked and untreated, it could result in complications such as:

  • Chronic otitis externa, where the symptoms persist for more than 3 months or keep coming back
  • Temporary hearing loss, or muffled hearing
  • Cellulitis or deep tissue infection, where the bacteria spread to the deeper layers and the connective tissue of the skin
  • Necrotizing otitis externa, which is damage of the bone and the cartilage
  • Infection of the brain and nearby nerves, a life-threatening complication
  • Therefore, though swimmer's ear is not a serious health problem, it should be treated by a doctor as soon as it occurs.

    Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear

    The symptoms for swimmer's ear may vary, depending upon the stage of the condition. In the initial stages, the symptoms are quite mild, but they may worsen significantly, as the infection goes untreated.

    Mild Symptoms – Initial Stage

    • Itching in the ear canal
    • Slight redness within the ear
    • Mild discomfort that gets worse when you tug on the outer ear
    • Draining of a clear and odorless fluid from the ears

    Moderate Symptoms – Progressed Stage

    • Intense itchiness in the ear canal
    • Pain that worsens with movement
    • Increased redness in the ear
    • Continued drainage of fluid, though in higher amounts
    • Discharge of pus from the infected ear
    • Feeling of fullness or blockage in the ear due to swelling, debris and fluid in the ear canal
    • Muffled hearing
    • Severe Symptoms – Advanced Stage

    • Severe pain that radiates from the ear to your neck, face and the sides of your head
    • Total blockage of the ear canal
    • Redness and swelling in the outer ear
    • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
    • Fever
    • Scaling or flaking of the skin in the outer area of the ear

    It is best for you to consult a doctor as soon as you notice even the milder symptoms of swimmer's ear. Seek emergency medical attention in case you experience severe ear pain accompanied by hearing loss or fever.

    Causes of Swimmer's Ear

    Swimmer's ear is usually caused by bacteria found in soil and water. Though rare, at times this infection could also occur because of a fungus or a virus.

    Your outer ear canals have natural defenses that keep the ears clean and prevent any infections. If these defenses are weakened for some reason, bacteria could enter your ears and cause an infection. Some of the factors that can cause your ears’ defenses to weaken include:

    • Excess moisture because of heavy perspiration, prolonged humidity or water that remains in the ears after swimming
    • Scratches or abrasions in the ear canal that usually occur when you clean your ear with a sharp cotton swab, fingernail or a hairpin.
    • Small breaks in the skin within the ear, which can occur when you wear headphones or hearing aids
    • Skin allergies around the ear area, caused by the use of jewelry, hair dyes and hair sprays
    • Some of the factors that could increase your risks of developing swimmer's ear include:

    • Swimming in waters that contain high levels of bacteria, like lakes and ponds
    • Excessive production of earwax
    • A narrow ear canal that can trap water more easily
    • This shows that you don’t have to be a swimmer, to suffer from swimmer's ear. In many cases, doctors cannot determine the exact factors that have lead to swimmer's ear.

      Remedies for Swimmer's Ear

      It is important that you seek medical treatment as soon as you notice the symptoms of swimmer's ear. The treatment is mainly aimed at cleaning out the inner ear canal, so that the ear can heal properly. There are several eardrops and medicines that can help treat otitis externa. Depending upon the type and severity of your infection, your doctor may prescribe a combination of:

    • Acidic solutions to restore the normal antibacterial environment of the year
    • Antibiotics to fight off the bacteria
    • Antifungal medication, in case the infection has been caused by a fungus
    • Steroids to reduce inflammation
    • However, while these cures destroy the infection-causing bacteria, they may not get rid of the pain and discomfort. Your doctor may advise you to take over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen, naproxen or acetaminophen for pain relief.

      You could also try natural remedies to relieve the symptoms of swimmer's ear and speed up the healing process. Given below are some of the most highly recommended home remedies for swimmer's ear:

      • Hot Garlic Oil: Pour some olive oil in a bowl and soak a few pieces of grated garlic in it. Let the grated garlic soak overnight in the oil and strain the pieces the next morning. Warm the oil a bit so that it can move though the ear canal easily. Pour around 3 drops of the oil into the affected ear, using a dropper.
      • Vinegar: Mix a few drops of white vinegar with water and pour a few drops of the solution into each ear, with the help of a dropper. This reduces the pain and itchiness caused by the infection. You could also mix white vinegar with some rubbing alcohol to speed up the recovery process
      • Heat Therapy: Wrap a hot water bottle in a thick towel and place it on your ear. This should help relieve your earache instantly. You could also use a heating pad instead of a hot water bottle, but make sure that the temperature isn’t too high.
      • Mineral Oil: Applying a small amount of mineral oil on the ears before a swim can help prevent bacterial infections to a great extent.

      While these natural remedies can help alleviate the symptoms of otitis externa, they do not cure the infection and therefore cannot be used as a substitute for medical treatment. It is also advisable to check with a doctor before you try any of them.

      Diet for Swimmer's Ear

      There is no specific diet that you need to follow while undergoing treatment for swimmer's ear. You can continue with your regular diet, as there are no foods that aggravate or alleviate the symptoms of swimmer's ears.

      However, a diet that is high in vitamins, minerals, protein and other essential nutrients makes it easier for your body to fight off infection causing bacteria. Therefore, it is best for you to follow a balanced diet, which contains the daily recommended amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, dairy products, lean meat, nuts and seeds.

      Vitamin C helps your body combat bacterial infections and therefore, you should increase your consumption of oranges, lemons, strawberries, papayas, kiwis, guavas, tomatoes, bell peppers (yellow), leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and certain fresh herbs.

      While undergoing treatment for any condition, it is best to avoid alcohol, junk food and greasy food as they could delay the healing process. Do make it a point to check with your doctor, before making any major changes to your diet.

      Suggestion for Swimmer's Ear

      While undergoing treatment for swimmer's ear, it is important that you keep your ears dry at all times. Therefore, put a small piece of cotton coated with petroleum jelly in each ear, before you go in for a shower. This will keep the water from getting into your ear. Some of the activities that you should avoid when you have swimmer's ear include:

      • Swimming and scuba diving
      • Flying
      • Wearing earplugs or headphones
      • Using a hearing aid (if possible)
      • Cleaning your ears with a cotton bud

      Do not panic if some water does get into your ear while you are swimming or bathing. Instead, pat the outer ear area dry immediately using a soft towel. Tip your head on to the side, to drain the water from the ear canal. You could also dry your ears with a blow-dryer by putting it on the lowest setting and keeping the dryer at least a foot away (0.30 meters) from your ear.

      Though swimmer's ear is not a serious problem, make sure that you do not treat the condition lightly. Speak to your doctor as soon as you experience itchiness or pain in the ear.


      1. Osguthorpe JD, et al. Otitis externa: Review and clinical update. American Family Physician. 2006;74:1510.
      2. Kaushik V, et al. Interventions for acute otitis externa. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2010:CD004740.
      3. Swimmer's ear: Otitis externa. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/rwi/illnesses/swimmers-ear.html. Accessed Aug. 4, 2010.
      4. Moshe Nussinovitch, Ayelet Rimon, Benjamin Volovitz, Eyal Raveh, Dario Prais, Jacob Amir, Cotton-tip applicators as a leading cause of otitis externa, International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, Volume 68, Issue 4, April 2004, Pages 433-435, ISSN 0165-5876, 10.1016/j.ijporl.2003.11.014.
      5. Michael B. Strauss, Rodger L. Dierker, 15 Otitis externa associated with aquatic activities (swimmer's ear), Clinics in Dermatology, Volume 5, Issue 3, July–September 1987, Pages 103-111, ISSN 0738-081X, 10.1016/S0738-081X(87)80016-0.
      6. Carolyn Cleary, Otitis Externa, In: Lynn C. Garfunkel, MD, Jeffrey M. Kaczorowski, MD, and Cynthia Christy, MD, Editor(s), Pediatric Clinical Advisor (Second Edition), Mosby, Philadelphia, 2007, Page 418, ISBN 9780323035064, 10.1016/B978-032303506-4.10239-1.
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      5 Swimmers Ear remedies suggested by our users
      Alcohol & White Vinegar
      suggested by Peg on Sunday, August 19, 2007

      Equal parts 70% alcohol & white vinegar. Works very rapidly!

      garlic oil
      suggested by Robert on Monday, March 26, 2007

      heat some garlic oil and drip into ear. Lay with the affected ear up and put some cotton in it. This cures it in less than an hour.

      pure garlic oil
      suggested by Joanne on Monday, March 26, 2007

      Both my children suffered from swimmers ear as they were born in Australia. I found pure garlic oil worked wonders

      Tea Tree Oil & Mineral Oil
      suggested by Richard on Thursday, January 11, 2007

      Make a solution of 1 part Tea Tree Oil and 2 parts Mineral Oil and add 2 drops per ear

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