KidsMD Health Topics

Swimmer's Ear

  • Overview

    Otitis externa is commonly known as swimmer's ear. It's the inflammation of the external ear canal. Swimmer's ear is caused by fungi or bacteria. Water that remains trapped in the ear canal (when swimming, for example) may provide a source for the growth of bacteria and fungi.

    Children's Hospital Boston
    300 Longwood Avenue
    Boston MA 02115

  • In-Depth

    What causes swimmer's ear?

    Many different factors can increase your child's chance of developing swimmer's ear. As the name implies, one of the factors is excessive wetness as with swimming, although it can occur without swimming. Other possible causes include:

    • being in warm, humid places
    • harsh cleaning of the ear canal
    • trauma to the ear canal
    • dry ear canal skin
    • foreign body in the ear canal
    • lack of cerumen (ear wax)
    • eczema and other forms of dermatitis

    What are the symptoms of swimmer's ear?

    There are several common symptoms of swimmer's ear, though each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

    • redness of the outer ear
    • itching in the ear
    • pain, especially when touching or wiggling the ear lobe
    • drainage from the ear
    • swollen glands in the neck
    • swollen ear canal
    • conductive hearing loss

    The symptoms of swimmer's ear may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

  • Tests

    Swimmer's ear may be diagnosed with a complete medical history and physical examination by your child's physician. Your child's physician may use an otoscope, a lighted instrument that helps to examine the ear and to aid in the diagnosis of ear disorders. This will help your child's physician know if there is also an infection in the middle ear, called otitis media. Although this infection usually does not occur with swimmer's ear, some children may have both types of infections. Your child's physician may also take a culture of the drainage from the ear to help determine proper treatment.

  • Your child will likely feel better within seven to 10 days. Treatment may include:

    • antibiotic ear drops or oral antibiotics
    • corticosteroid ear drops (to help decrease the swelling)
    • pain medication
    • keeping the ear dry, as directed by your child's physician
    • a wick (a piece of sponge may be placed in your child's ear if there's a lot of swelling; this wick helps the antibiotic drops work more effectively in the ear canal)

    How can I help my child prevent swimmer's ear?

    Here are some hints for prevention:

    • Place two to three drops of a mixture of vinegar/isopropyl alcohol/water into your child's ear after the ears come in contact with water.
    • Use ear plugs for swimming or bathing.
    • Do not aggressively clean your child's ear canal.
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