Skip to Content
Home > Health Information > Health Library > Swimmer's Ear (Otitis Externa)
Swimmer's ear (otitis externa) is an inflammation or infection of the ear canal, the passage that leads from the outer ear to the eardrum. This condition is called swimmer's ear, because it commonly occurs in people who have been swimming. But other people can get it too.
You can get swimmer's ear when bacteria or fungus grows in your ear canal. This happens when water, sand, or other small debris irritates the delicate skin in the ear canal. Other things that can irritate the ear canal include hearing aids, lots of ear cleaning, and eczema of the ear canal.
Swimmer's ear is more likely if you have a very narrow or hairy ear canal; live in a warm, humid climate; have little or no earwax; have lots of ear infections; or have eczema or dry skin. If you have had swimmer's ear in the past, you are more likely to get it again.
Swimmer's ear can be very painful. The pain can get worse when you touch the earlobe or another part of the outer ear or when you chew. Other symptoms can include itching, a feeling of fullness in the ear, and a yellowish or brownish discharge from the ear. Your ear canal may be swollen. In severe cases, the outer ear can be red and swollen too.
If you think you have swimmer's ear, call your doctor to find the best way to treat it.
If you have diabetes or take medicine that suppresses your immune system, swimmer's ear can cause severe problems. Call your doctor right away.
A doctor can usually tell whether you have swimmer's ear by looking into your ear and asking questions about your symptoms.
Follow these tips when treating swimmer's ear:
Some home treatment can help swimmer's ear. But it is important to see a doctor first. If your doctor says it's okay, you can try the following:
In severe cases, the ear canal should be carefully cleaned out by an ear specialist. Sometimes, if the ear canal is very swollen, a wick with antibiotic drops will be placed in the ear canal.
Do not use ear candles. They have no proven benefit, and they can cause harm.
You may be able to prevent swimmer's ear.
Other Works Consulted
Haddad J (2011). External otitis (otitis externa). In RM Kleigman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 2196–2199. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Hajioff D, Mackeith S (2008). Otitis externa, search date October 2007. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
Rosenfeld RM, et al. (2014). Clinical practice guideline: Acute otitis externa. Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, 150(Suppl 1): S1–S24. DOI: 10.1177/0194599813517083. Accessed February 12, 2014.
Current as of: October 21, 2018
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: John Pope, MD, MPH - PediatricsKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineCharles M. Myer III, MD - Pediatrics, Otolaryngology
Current as of:
October 21, 2018
Medical Review:John Pope, MD, MPH - Pediatrics & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Charles M. Myer III, MD - Pediatrics, Otolaryngology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2019 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.
See important information from Billings Clinic on Non-discrimination and Interpreter Services.
Billings Clinic is proud to be an equal opportunity/affirmative action (EOE/AA) e-verify employer.