Swimmer’s ear: Causes, symptoms and how to treat | HealthPartners Blog

It starts with itching in the ear. Your ear opening may appear slightly red. There is also discomfort when you pull on your outer ear or press on the small bump in front of your ear opening. You may even see a little clear fluid coming out of your ear. What’s happening?

These are all symptoms of swimmer’s ear, a condition that can affect people of all ages. At first, swimmer’s ear is usually quite soft. But without treatment, swimmer’s ear symptoms can go from mild to severe, causing worsening pain and serious complications.

Read on to learn about swimmer’s ear, what causes it, and when to seek help.

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the external ear canal, which runs from the eardrum to the outside of your head. Another name for swimmer’s ear is otitis externa.

Swimmer’s ear vs. Ear Infection: What’s the Difference?

Swimmer’s ear is common type of ear infection which affects the outer ear. It is also possible to get inner and middle ear infections.

One of the differences between swimmer’s ear and other types of ear infections is what causes them. Swimmer’s ear happens when things from the outside get into your ear canal. Infections of the inner and middle ear usually follow an illness such as the flu, cold or allergieswhich causes fluid to build up or become inflamed in the ear.

What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear?

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear vary depending on its length. Treating swimmer’s ear while it’s still in its early stages can help keep it from getting worse.

Mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear

  • Itching in your ear
  • Some redness in the ear canal
  • Discomfort when you press or pull on your ear
  • Clear, odorless fluid comes out of your ear

Moderate symptoms of swimmer’s ear

  • Increase in itching
  • Ear pain that gets worse when you chew or move your ear
  • An ear canal that looks redder
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Muffled hearing or hearing loss
  • A lot of fluid comes out of the ear – it can be yellow or yellow-green and often smells

Advanced symptoms of swimmer’s ear

  • Severe pain in the ear that may spread to the face, neck, or side of the head
  • Swelling of the ear canal, outer ear, or glands in the neck
  • Redness both in the ear canal and on the outside of the ear
  • Fever

Of course, having an itchy, red, and swollen ear canal doesn’t necessarily mean you have swimmer’s ear. You may have a different type of ear infection, allergy, or skin irritation. Here’s a way to tell: If it doesn’t hurt when you pull on your pinna, it probably isn’t swimmer’s ear.

But even if it’s not swimmer’s ear, it’s still a good idea to talk to a doctor and get treatment for what’s causing your ear problems.

What causes swimmer’s ear?

Despite the name, you don’t have to go swimming to get swimmer’s ear. This can happen whenever dirty water, sand, dirt or other debris gets into your ear canal and stays there for a long time or comes into contact with irritated skin, causing bacteria or fungus to grow.

Normally, water that gets into your ear drains out on its own to allow the ear canal to dry out. Your earwax can also kill the fungus and bacteria found in dirty water or debris. But this process is interrupted when you get swimmer’s ear.

How is the ear canal irritated?

If the skin in your ear canal is injured or damaged, you are more likely to get swimmer’s ear. Here are a few reasons why this could happen:

  • Your ear canal is too dry– A healthy amount of earwax helps you protect yourself from infection. Cleaning your ears too often can damage the skin, making it more likely that you will get an infection.
  • You put things in your ears– If you have a habit of putting fingers, pens, pins or Q-tips in your ears, you are more likely to damage the skin of your ear canal. Infections are more likely to develop if you have broken or irritated skin in your ears.
  • You have a skin disease in your ear– If your skin is irritated or inflamed due to eczema or psoriasis, it is more likely to crack or break.
  • You wear a hearing aid– You may experience ear canal irritation if your hearing aid does not fit well or causes an allergic reaction. If your hearing aid seems uncomfortable, talk to someone audiologist for hearing aid evaluation.

How does water get stuck in your ear?

Usually, when water gets into your ear, it comes out quickly and easily. But sometimes it’s hard to get the water out once it gets in. Here are some reasons why:

  • You have a lot of hair in your ears– Hair in the ear canal can trap dirty water or debris.
  • Your ear canal is swollen– This can happen if the skin of the ear canal is injured or irritated.
  • There is an earwax hit– While a healthy amount of earwax protects your ears from swimmer’s ear, affected earwax can make it more likely to trap dirty water or debris, causing microbial growth.
  • You live in a warm and humid climate– If the air is always humid, your ear canal can hardly dry out.

How can you tell if you have water in your ear?

If you have water in your ears, your ears may feel blocked and you may have muffled hearing. You may also have ear pain, loss of balance, ringing in the ears, runny nose or sore throat.

Is swimmer’s ear contagious?

No, swimmer’s ear does not spread between people.

How long does swimmer’s ear last?

Mild cases of swimmer’s ear sometimes go away on their own within a few weeks. But if your swimmer’s ear has advanced symptoms, it may take longer to clear up. With treatment, swimmer’s ear will likely go away in 7-10 days.

What are the complications of swimmer’s ear?

If swimmer’s ear progresses, it can cause serious problems, such as:

  • Temporary hearing loss (hearing usually returns to normal after the infection clears)
  • Ear infections that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • Damage to the bones and cartilage in your ear
  • Infection in nearby tissue, the skull, brain, or nerves

If you have complications after a swimmer’s ear infection, your primary care doctor may recommend that you make an appointment with ear, nose and throat doctor. They specialize in ear care and can help you get back to feeling and hearing better.

When should I see a doctor for swimmer’s ear?

Even if you have mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear, it’s a good idea to talk to your primary care doctor. They will be able to determine what is causing your symptoms and guide you on the road to recovery.

Get medical help right away if you experience any of the following:

  • Fever
  • Severe pain in or around the ear
  • Hearing loss or changes
  • Fluid coming from your ears that is yellow, yellow-green, or foul-smelling

Your doctor will be able to tell if it’s swimmer’s ear by looking inside your ear and asking some questions. If you have pus coming from your ear, your doctor may take a sample to send for testing.

You can also start a Virtuwell Visit swimmer’s ear anytime, day or night, to get treatment for swimmer’s ear. They will see anyone over the age of 5.

Make an appointment for primary care

Start a visit to Virtuwell

How to get rid of swimmer’s ear

During the appointment, your doctor will provide you with information on how to make sure that your infection does not get worse. They may recommend one or more of the following as part of your swimmer’s ear treatment plan:

Prescription ear drops

Prescription ear drops are a common treatment for swimmer’s ear. They work by soothing the inflammation while killing the bacteria or fungus causing the infection. Most of the time, you will put drops in your ear 3-4 times a day for five days.

Heat

Keeping a warm towel next to your ear can help you avoid the pain. Another option is to use a heating pad on low – just make sure you don’t fall asleep with it on as you could burn yourself.

Over-the-counter pain medications

Acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve) may make you feel more comfortable. But not every drug is suitable for children. If you are not sure what to give your child, contact your doctor or nurse.

Keep your ears dry

It is best to keep the water out of your ear until the infection clears up. If you swim, use a swimming cap that fits snugly around your ears and consider using soft earplugs when you bathe or shower. Also, gently wipe your ears with a towel every time they get wet.

Tips to prevent swimmer’s ear

If you’ve had swimmer’s ear before, you’re more likely to get it again. Keeping germ water out of your ear goes a long way in preventing future ear infections. You will have the best protection if you do not swim in dirty water and do not allow soap, bath foam and shampoo into the ear canal. You may also consider using earplugs when swimming or showering – especially if you have had ear tube surgery.

In addition, take the steps below to protect the skin in your ear canal and keep the inside of your ears as dry as possible.

How to avoid skin irritation

Remember that you are more likely to get swimmer’s ear if the skin in the ear canal is damaged. So anything you do to protect your ear should help reduce your chance of getting swimmer’s ear.

  • Do not put anything in your ear.Even Q-tips and earwax removal tools can damage the ear canal and cause impacted earwax. There are other ways to clean your ears without Q-tips.
  • Don’t over clean your ears.Although earwax may look unattractive, it helps protect your ears from injury and can even kill the bacteria and fungus that can cause swimmer’s ear.
  • If possible, limit the use of earplugs and headphones.If you use them often, they can irritate your ear canal or cause ear wax to build up. If you do wear earplugs or headphones, make sure they are clean before putting them on.

How to remove water from your ear

If dirty water stays in your ear for too long, it’s possible to get swimmer’s ear. These are things you can try to get the water out of your ear:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) ear drops.– Fluid-drying ear drops such as Swim Ear can help dry out your ear. The isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol in the ear drops combines with the water in the ear to help dry out your ear.
  • Use a hair dryer– Use a hair dryer on the lowest setting to gently dry your ears. Just point it at your ears for a few minutes from a safe distance. Consider doing this every time you bathe or wet your ears.
  • Chewing and yawning– Moving your mouth can relieve pressure in your ear, making it easier for water to drain.
  • Pull your ear– Tilt your head so that the blocked ear is pointing towards the floor. Then pull the top of your ear. This straightens the ear canal, allowing trapped water to drain.
  • Push it out– Close your mouth, plug your nose and then blow air into your cheeks. This can help reduce the pressure in your ears, allowing the water to drain.
  • Create suction– Place a flat hand on your affected ear and press down for a few seconds. When you remove your hand, the suction effect can loosen the trapped water.

Treatment of swimmer’s ear

If you notice symptoms of swimmer’s ear, it’s time to talk to a doctor. While symptoms may be mild at first, untreated swimmer’s ear can worsen and cause serious problems. The good news is that swimmer’s ear usually goes away fairly quickly with treatment.

For people of all ages, an in-person or video visit with a primary care physician can give you an official diagnosis and personalized treatment plan. Or for those 5 years and older, online treatment through Virtuwell is available at any time of the day or night.

Make an appointment for primary care

Start a visit to Virtuwell

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