By: Chris Grindle, MD; Amy Hughes, MD and Katherine Kavanagh, MD

Ah, summer—the time when our active kids jump right in the water for lots of swimming.

Then, ouch. Or, double ouch. Sometime later, the ear pain sets in, maybe with some other unpleasant symptoms (more on that below)...

Connecticut Children’s ear, nose and throat specialists, Chris Grindle, MD; Amy Hughes, MD and Katherine Kavanagh, MD, teamed up to explain what swimmer’s ear is, how to get relief and how to prevent it all together so there are no dampers on summer fun. Keep reading to learn more. 

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1. Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) is different from a typical ear infection.

Swimmer’s ear is an infection in the outer part of the ear – the ear canal.  It happens when water gets trapped in your ear canal – especially lake, pond or ocean water.  That little bit of water is a great place for bacteria to hang out and multiply, causing an infection.  In the medical world, your ENT calls it otitis (“ear infection”) externa (“external”). Most of the time, it’s painful and can cause inflammation and irritation.

This isn’t the same as a traditional ear infection. Those infections are in the middle ear – on the other side of the ear drum.  Swimming does not cause a middle ear infection if the eardrum is otherwise healthy. 

2. Despite its name, swimmer’s ear is not just for swimmers.

All it takes to develop otitis externa is water getting trapped in the ear canal. This can be from swimming, bathing or showering, or simply spending time in humid environments. It doesn’t happen to everyone—and it doesn’t happen only to swimmers.

3. Pain and itching are telltale signs—but look for these other signs early, too.

When the water gets trapped in the ear canal, so does bacteria. This bacteria then multiplies and causes itchiness, pain or irritation. To catch swimmer’s ear early, be on the lookout for:

  • Pain when pushing or pulling on the ear
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Itchiness inside the ear
  • A clogged or “full” feeling in the ear
  • Swelling and redness of the ear
  • Swollen lymph nodes around the ear, neck and jaw. If you’re not sure, your pediatrician or ENT can check for these.

In more extreme cases, you may also notice pus or an offensive odor coming out of the ear. This usually happens when a bacterial infection is left untreated.

Don’t wait it out--- contact your pediatrician or ENT right away.

quote icon

All it takes to develop [swimmer's ear] is water getting trapped in the ear canal... It doesn’t happen to everyone—and it doesn’t happen only to swimmers.

Pediatric Ear, Nose & Throat Team,
Connecticut Children's
Teenager with jaw pain

4. Swimmer’s ear isn’t contagious, right?

Correct, swimmer's ear is not contagious. You can’t catch it from someone else because it’s not caused by a viral illness like a common cold, the flu or COVID-19.

5. Your child’s ENT will recommend the best treatment for swimmer’s ear.

The best way to treat swimmer’s ear is with ear drops.  Often your doctor will prescribe ear drops that contain both an antibiotic and a steroid.  The antibiotic will help treat the bacteria that are causing the infection and the steroid will decrease the inflammation and pain. 

Another super important thing to remember is to keep the ear dry. Ideally, take a break from swimming for a bit.  If you can’t do that, wear ear plugs,  even in the shower.  Also, make sure not to cover your ear with wet hair and do not go to bed with wet hair.

6. As the saying goes, “Don’t try this at home.”

Please tell your child that using cotton swabs to try to absorb the fluid, or poking at the ear repeatedly with fingers won’t work. Actually, these DIY attempts can cause even more damage and worsen the infection. Using fingers or cotton swabs this way can puncture the ear drums and scrape the ear canal.

7. Prevention can help—but it isn’t perfect.

How can you help your child avoid the uncomfortable, painful swimmer’s ear? It starts with keeping their ears as dry as possible. Here are some ideas, which may vary based on age, comfort level and personal preference:

  • Wear earplugs, if they let you. Yes, it’s ok for kids with ear tubes to wear ear plugs.
  • Consider a swimming cap
  • Put on a shower cap while bathing
  • Pat the area dry with a towel after activity
  • Use a blow dryer on cool setting
  • If your child keeps getting swimmer’s ear, then your pediatrician or ENT may recommend a preventative ear drop solution made of distilled water and vinegar. Before trying this yourself, ask your doctor first.

>Related: Follow These 5 Rules to Prevent Hearing Loss

Nothing is 100% fool proof, but if you stick to a routine, it can help prevent this pesky infection.

For more facts about swimmer’s ear, check out this detailed guide from the CDC. To learn more about ear-related conditions, check out this list of ear, nose and throat conditions.