Swimmer’s Ear

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While ear infections, like swimmer's ear, are common in children, that doesn't make it easy to watch. No one likes to see their child in pain. Ear infections can also cause problems with hearing and balance. 

Swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, is an inflammation and/or infection of the ear canal.

Causes of the infection can include:

  • Water trapped in the ear canal
  • Chemical irritation
  • Damaged ear canal, which causes inflammation or allows infection

Your risk for infection increases with:

  • Frequent swimming in warm, dirty or chlorinated water
  • Soap left in the ear canal
  • Narrow ear canals
  • Damage from middle ear infections, skin conditions or foreign objects

Signs of Swimmer’s Ear

  • Starts with an itchy ear canal
  • Ear canal can become painful
  • Pain gets worse when you press on the tragus (the tab of skin in front of the ear)
  • The ear feels plugged or full
  • Ear discharge may start as the swimmer's ear gets worse
  • No cold symptoms or fever

Risks for Children with Diabetes or HIV

A child with diabetes, HIV, a weakened immune system or other chronic illness has a higher chance of getting swimmer’s ear. The child may also have a higher risk of the infection spreading and becoming more aggressive. If you don’t treat it, the infection can worsen into a serious and life-threatening condition.

How To Treat Swimmer's Ear in Children


For those with an infection, medication will depend on the cause of the infection. Your child's doctor may advise:

  • Oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce pain and inflammation
  • Corticosteroid ear drops
  • Ear wick – a small sponge inserted by a doctor if the ear canal is too swollen to allow ear drops in

For a bacterial infection:

  • Antibiotic ear drops
  • Oral antibiotics

For a fungal infection:

  • Oral anti-fungal medications

If medications or ear drops don’t work, your doctor may need to remove any drainage or pus from the ear canal.

Treating Extreme Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer’s ear that worsens and spreads into the base of the skull, called malignant otitis externa, can become dangerous and may need:

  • Intravenous antibiotics
  • Surgery
  • Removal of dead tissue (debridement) 

During Treatment

Try to keep your child’s infected ear dry and safe for 7-10 days. Have your child:

  • Take baths instead of showers
  • Avoid swimming
  • Keep fingers, cotton swabs and other objects out of the ear
  • Avoid using hearing aids or earplugs

If Your Child is a Swimmer

If your child swims often or participates on a swim team or water sport, it's usually okay for them to continue. Swimming may slow your child's recovery, but causes no serious harm.

You can also try:

  • A tight-fitting swimming cap
  • Ear drops of white vinegar/rubbing alcohol or glycerin before and after swimming
  • Thoroughly draining and drying ears after swimming and showering

Is the Infection Over?

With treatment, symptoms should lessen in three days and be gone completely in seven days. The infection needs a doctor’s care if:

  • Ear pain gets worse
  • Symptoms last over seven days on treatment