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Preventing Swimmers Ear

Click here for additional information on Swimmer's Ear

Summer is here, and with it comes carefree days, sunshine, sand, surf, swimming and often – swimmer’s ear.

Otitis externa, called swimmer’s ear, is an infection of the external ear canal that frequently occurs during the summer months when children spend a lot of time in the water.

What causes swimmer’s ear?

When too much moisture in the ear irritates the skin in the canal, it allows bacteria or fungi to penetrate causing inflammation and infection. But you don't have to swim to get swimmer's ear. Anything that causes a break in the skin of the ear canal can lead to an infection. Other possible causes of infection include:

  • Being in warm, humid places
  • Harsh cleaning of the ear canal
  • Trauma to the ear canal
  • Dry ear canal skin
  • Foreign object in the ear canal
  • Lack of ear wax
  • Eczema and other forms of dermatitis

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear

Symptoms of swimmer's ear usually appear within a few days of exposure to contaminated water or a break in the skin, and may include:

  • Ear pain and/or itching, especially when touching or wiggling the external ear
  • Swelling in the ear and/or lymph nodes in the neck
  • A feeling of stuffiness in the ear
  • Decreased hearing
  • Red and scaly skin on the ear
  • Pain when chewing
  • Discharge that is clear at first, then turns yellowish

The symptoms of swimmer’s ear may resemble other medical conditions. Always consult your child’s physician for a diagnosis.

Treatment of swimmer’s ear

When properly treated, swimmer’s ear will clear up within seven to 10 days. Specific treatment depends on each case and can include:

  • Antibiotic ear drops and/or oral antibiotics. A wick (piece of cotton or foam) may be placed in your child’s ear if there is a lot of swelling. This helps the antibiotic drops enter the ear canal and work more effectively
  • Corticosteroid ear drops (to help reduce swelling)
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers
  • Keeping the ear dry

Tips for preventing swimmer’s ear

Here are some things you can do to help your child avoid swimmer’s ear:

  • Dry ears thoroughly after swimming or bathing. Dry only outer ear slowly and gently with a soft towel or cloth – never stick anything inside the ear smaller than your elbow.
  • Avoid swimming in polluted water.
  • Use earplugs designed to keep water out of the ears when swimming.
  • Place two to three drops of a mixture of vinegar/isopropyl alcohol into your child’s ear after significant water exposure.
  • Never attempt to clean earwax out of the ears with cotton swabs, paper clips or hairpins. Using these items can pack material deeper into the ear canal and irritate the thin skin inside the ear. You might also puncture your eardrum.
  • Avoid substances that may irritate the ear, such as hair sprays and hair dyes. Put cotton balls in ears when applying these products.
  • After swimming, turn the head to the side to drain water from each ear.
  • Ask about the chlorine and pH testing program at your pool to ensure they are adequate for killing any bacteria or fungi that might be in the water.

posted 07-18-2011 and adapted from the email newsletter of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. To subscribe to their online community, click here.


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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