Swimmer’s Ear (Otitis Externa) Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

What is Swimmer’s Ear (Otitis Externa)?

Swimmer’s ear, or to give it its medical name, otitis externa, is a common infection in the ear canal. That’s the tube that runs from the outside of your ear to the eardrum. It’s usually caused by water-loving bacteria or sometimes by a virus or fungus.


Most people associate swimmer’s ear with spending too much time in the water - that’s where the nickname comes from. However, it’s possible to get otitis externa without diving into the pool or ocean. Frequent showers, cleaning your ears with things like cotton buds, or even overusing headphones can make you prone to infection. 


This post takes you through all you need to know about otitis externa. Topics discussed include the following: 


  • Causes
  • Symptoms 
  • Treatments 
  • When to consult your GP
  • Preventative steps


Let’s get started by looking at the causes of swimmer’s ear.  

What Causes Otitis Externa?

Otitis externa is caused by a bacterial infection. Germs love the dark, warm environment of the ear canal, especially if water gets trapped from swimming or showering often. 


When it comes to fighting off germs, our ears have natural defences. Ear wax often gets a bad press, but it plays a crucial role in protecting the ear canal, making it hard for germs to grow. However, if the delicate skin of the ear canal gets scratched or damaged, bacteria can take hold leading to swimmer’s ear. 


Here are the most common causes of otitis externa:


  • Water trapped in the ear: Too much water in the ear from frequent swimming or showering can remove some of that protective ear wax and soften the skin. This makes it much easier for germs to get a foothold. Furthermore, a damp, moist environment inside your ear canal provides the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. 
  • Sticking things in your ears: Using cotton buds, fingers, hairpins or paper clips to clean your ears rubs away earwax and can scratch the ear canal. Hearing aids and earbuds can also cause tiny breaks in the sensitive skin. 

Some people with long-term conditions are at greater risk of otitis externa. Skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis cause skin irritation, making it more likely you will scratch and damage the ear canal. 


Otitis externa is not contagious, and it usually only affects one ear. 

Most Common Symptoms of Otitis Externa

Symptoms to look out for include the following: 


  • Itchiness in the ear canal
  • Pain or discomfort, especially if you tug or press your ear
  • Redness or swelling
  • Discharge or pus from the ear
  • Muffled or impaired hearing. 

Treating Otitis Externa

If you have ear pain, it’s best to get checked by your GP right away. Early treatment can stop an infection from getting worse. 


Antibiotic ear drops are the most common treatment and usually clear up swimmer’s ear within a few days. In some cases, your GP may prescribe antibiotic pills. Ibuprofen can provide pain relief and reduce inflammation. 


And if your swimmer’s ear is caused by a fungus, your doctor will give you antifungal ear drops. You are more likely to experience a fungal infection if you have diabetes or a weakened immune system. 

When to Speak with Your Doctor

Complications from swimmer’s ear are uncommon. However, it’s a good idea to chat with your doctor if you experience any of the following:


  • Your ear infection has not gone away after 10 to 14 days of using antibiotic drops.
  • Your symptoms are getting worse.
  • You lose your hearing.
  • Bad-smelling, yellow or green coloured pus oozes from the ear. 
  • You feel dizzy, feverish or experience a ringing sound in your ear.

How to Prevent Swimmer's Ear

If you love getting into the water, the good news is there are steps you can take to prevent swimmer’s ear.


  • Use ear plugs or swimming and shower caps to stop water from getting into your ears.
  • Dry your ears with a soft towel straight after swimming or showering. 
  • Turn your head from side to side when you get out of the water to help drain fluid from your ears.
  • Don’t swim in polluted water.
  • Avoid sticking anything in your ear canal, including fingers, cotton buds or hairpins. And try to limit your use of headphones and earbuds. 
  • Protect your ears with cotton wool when applying hair sprays or hair dyes. 

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Paul O'Hara; Audiologist

My name is Paul O'Hara, and I became an audiologist because I am naturally fascinated by hearing's science and the phenomenon of sound. I wanted to pursue a career that satisfies my curiosity and supports my passion. Every day and every person is different. I love my job, especially when I meet a patient who has all but lost the power of hearing, and I know I can help.

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