Swimmer's Ear

What is swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear is an infection of the outer ear canal (the part that goes from the entrance to your ear to the eardrum). It’s often caused by bacteria, viruses or even fungus getting past the protective barrier of your earwax to cause an infection. This can happen when water gets trapped inside the ear canal (hence the name “swimmer's ear”), but you can get a swimmer's ear infection even if you’ve not been near water.

Symptoms of swimmer's ear

Swimmer's ear, also called "otitis externa", is different from other ear infections since it’s located in the outer ear canal. Other ear infections more commonly happen further into the ear behind the eardrum where there is a canal that connects the ear to the sinuses.

The symptoms of swimmer’s ear can be mild or more severe. They include:

  • Pain, which can become severe
  • Itching and irritation in and around your ear canal
  • Fluid or pus draining out of the ear
  • Tenderness when you move your ear or jaw
  • If you pull on your outer ear, the ear canal might feel more painful or tender
  • Trouble hearing or muffled hearing as your ear canal becomes swollen

    The symptoms of swimmer’s ear can worsen or become serious if the infection spreads to the inner ear or further inside the skull. In that case, it’s important to seek immediate medical advice.

    If your GP has previously diagnosed you with swimmer’s ear and you recognise the symptoms, you can visit Boots Online Doctor’s Swimmer’s Ear Treatment Service2 for quick, convenient access to expert advice and treatment if it’s right for you. They’ll review everything within 24 hours and you could get your medicine within a few days. 

How long does swimmer's ear usually last?

Swimmer’s ear can clear up on its own but it may take several weeks for the infection to go away without treatment. With treatment, usually in the form of antibiotic, antifungal or steroid ear drops, the infection should start to improve in a few days and clear up completely in 7 to 10 days.

What causes swimmer's ear?

As the name suggests, swimmer’s ear can be caused by getting your ears wet again and again. Moisture can remove some of the protective earwax in your ear and soften your skin, making it easier for germs to take hold. Bacteria, viruses and fungal infections like warm, moist places to grow and even humid weather and sweat can encourage an infection to take hold in your ear canal. But swimmer’s ear can also happen in a dry environment when the protective wax that coats the inside of your ear is damaged. Inserting things into your ears like hearing aids or cotton buds can remove some of the wax, making it easier for an infection to start.

You can also get swimmer’s ear more easily if you have certain skin conditions like psoriasis or eczema. These conditions can make your skin cracked and sore which can encourage the growth of germs, leading to an infection.

What makes swimmer's ear worse?

If you have an ear infection, it’s important that you don’t insert anything into your ear canal or scratch it. Doing this can make the infection worse by irritating the skin, encouraging the infection to spread.

Getting your ear wet before the infection has cleared, or before you’ve finished treating the infection, can also make the inflammation and symptoms last longer.

Treatment for swimmer's ear

How professionals diagnose swimmer's ear

If you see a medical professional for your ear infection, they will ask about your symptoms and likely take a look inside your ear with an instrument called an otoscope. They may also take a sample of any discharge or fluid coming out of your ear to find out if you have a bacterial, viral or fungal infection.

Medical treatments for swimmer's ear

If you’ve been diagnosed with swimmer’s ear, there are things you can do to ease your symptoms. You can take paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease the pain of the inflammation in your ear. You can also hold a warm towel to your ear to soothe the discomfort, but it’s very important not to put anything in the ear canal and to keep it dry.

To clear the infection quickly, you may be prescribed ear drops which contain an antibiotic, steroid and/or antifungal medicine. Boots Online Doctor’s Swimmer’s Ear Treatment Service2 can help with quick, convenient access to expert advice and treatment if it’s right for you. If we prescribe ear drops for your infection, it’s important to take these drops as instructed and to message Boots Online Doctor through your patient record or see your GP if the infection hasn’t cleared up after a week of treatment.

During treatment, it’s important to keep your ears dry and clear.

  • Don't go swimming until the infection has completely cleared
  • Don't wear headsets, a hearing aid or earbuds in the infected ear
  • Do use a cotton ball coated with petroleum jelly to protect your ear during a shower or bath and to stop water from entering the ear canal

Prevention of swimmer's ear

How to reduce the impact of swimmer's ear

To prevent future swimmer’s ear infections, after your infection has cleared, you should keep your ears as dry as possible. Wear a swimming cap or earplugs while swimming, and avoid getting your ears wet when having a bath or shower.

You should also avoid putting anything into the ear canal such as cotton buds, which can damage the lining of the ear, making it vulnerable to infections.

When to seek medical advice

Most swimmer’s ear infections will clear after a week of treatment, but if the symptoms have become worse, you still have severe pain, or a rash has developed on your scalp or near your ear, you should seek medical advice.

In some cases, the infection can spread to the inner ear or further inside the skull. In that case it’s important to seek immediate medical advice.

Frequently asked questions

While you are treating an ear infection, particularly swimmer's ear, it is crucial to keep your ear as dry as possible. It is recommended to avoid swimming and water sports for about 7 to 10 days to prevent further irritation and to promote healing.

In mild cases, swimmer's ear may improve by itself, but treatment can provide prompt relief. In some cases, if left untreated the infection may spread to the base of your skull, brain or cranial nerves, so it’s incredibly important to seek treatment.

Swimmer's ear is an outer ear canal infection caused by moisture, common in children and during summer. A middle ear infection, occurring behind the eardrum, is typically viral and unrelated to swimming.

Water typically trickles out of your ear within a few minutes or hours. If symptoms last for more than three days, or if you are in pain or suspect an infection, contact your GP.

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Page last reviewed by Boots Pharmacy team on 15/07/2024