Swimmer’s Ear

Also known as Otitis Externa, “swimmer’s ear” doesn’t only occur in swimmers’ ears. Otitis externa is an infection, usually fungal, in the external ear canal that connects the eardrum with the outside of your body. The space we typically get water caught in after diving or bathing and the place where we shouldn’t put anything smaller than our elbows into, but often do put cotton swabs anyway. This canal is usually waxy and this wax serves to protect the canal from invasion by germs unless we are constantly swabbing them and disturbing the natural function of the wax and the little hairs in the canal or we are exposed to a large dose of fungus, such as is sometimes present in smarmy lakes (hence the name, swimmer’s ear).

Usually this can easily be treated with ear drops of various sorts including a home remedy of peroxide, vinegar and water dribbled into the canal nightly, or by a prescription solution that fights fungus and decreases inflamation and pain. See your doctor if keeping your ear dry and using the concoction above doesn’t do the trick. Some swimmers use an ear plug that prevents the dirty water from settling inside. Others use a solution (over the counter) that dries the liquid after water exposure without swabbing (it has alcohol in it and may burn if you already have an infection – don’t use it in that case). Anyway, the good news is that it does not impair your hearing function and usually gets better on its own with time and avoidance of the original cause. Oh, yes, you can also give yourself this infection by sticking pencil points or other nasty things into your ear to scratch that itch so stay out of it, for your own good.


Swimmer’s ear, or OTITIS EXTERNA , is a painful, often itchy infection in the ear canal. It is caused by fungus and often occurs after swimming in unclean water or by scratching the inner canal with objects such as Q tips and introducing fungus inadvertently.

Usual course

Most cases resolve without treatment but discomfort can lead to attempts at relief that can make the condition worse. If not resolved some cases can go on to an oozing exudative and even bloody state that will require antibiotic treatment to cure. If treated early with ear drops and pain relievers the usual length of illness is under a week. In long standing cases it may take many weeks to completely resolve.

Similar conditions

Swimmer’s ear can be mistaken for middle ear infections and usually differ in degree of pain and absence of associated fever. It is important for young children’s ears to be checked before drops are applied since small foreign objects in the canal can cause infection that mimics swimmer’s ear but must be removed before treatment. Rarely , the presence of a small ear canal growth can be mistaken for a fungal infection and if ordinary measures are not resolving the pain one should consult with an ear nose and throat specialist.


Usual treatment includes ear drops with anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal activity and requires prescription. Pain relief in the form of analgesic drops may also help. Prevention is key especially in recurrent cases and includes the use of ear plugs when swimming, over-the-counter drying agents (drops), or a home remedy of peroxide, alcohol and water dribbled into the ear canals after swimming in order to avoid reinfection. Strict avoidance of swabbing the ear canals or using objects to relieve the itch is crucial in the avoidance and treatment of otitis externa.

When to call the doctor

If pain after swimming occurs and does not improve after drying the outer ear and waiting for canal fluid to air dry doesn’t bring relief it is best to see the doctor. If this is a chronic recurring condition and the use of ear plugs when immersing, and drying agents that have helped in the past no longer work, it is best to call the doctor for ear drops with anti-inflammatory and antifungal activity. If hearing is impaired or if you suspect there may be a foreign body such as a small toy or pencil point or swab fiber in the ear you should call the doctor right away.

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