Here’s What a Swimmer’s Ear Infection Feels Like—And How to Get Rid of It

Experts say the symptoms can be “excruciating,” so it’s crucial to seek treatment quickly.
Swimmers Ear Infection What Symptoms Feel Like and How to Treat It
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Dealing with a swimmer’s ear infection just once is enough to make you wary of the pool or your next hangout by the lake, even on those steamy days when you could really use a cool dip. The “excruciating” ear pain, muffled hearing, and intense itchiness it can trigger are no joke, according to Kelvin M. Kwong, MD, an assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Of course, all sorts of ear problems can be annoying, but swimmer’s ear tends to be especially rough.

As if that’s not enough of a drag, you’ll naturally have to avoid swimming and be careful while bathing until the infection clears up. And it’s not the kind of ailment that’ll simply go away if you ignore the symptoms and cross your fingers. In fact swimmer’s ear tends to get worse without proper treatment, and could even impact your hearing if you let it go for long enough, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It’s just not something worth messing with—especially when there’s a relatively simple fix for it (more on that in a minute).

If you suspect you’re dealing with a gnarly ear infection, you’re probably well aware of how terrible it feels. But what are the other possible signs of swimmer’s ear, and what’s the fastest way to get some relief? Here’s what you should know.

What are the common causes of swimmer’s ear?

First, some ear anatomy 101: Your ears have three distinct sections, including the outer, middle, and inner ear.1 Your outer ear includes the part of your ear you can see, along with your ear canal, which is a tube that connects the outer ear to the middle ear.

Swimmer’s ear, which is medically known as otitis externa, is an outer ear infection—specifically one that hits the ear canal.2 When water gets trapped inside this tube—a perfectly dark and moist environment—bacteria or fungi can easily multiply and make themselves at home, which can ultimately lead to an infection.

You don’t necessarily need to dunk your head into a pool to increase your risk, though swimming in freshwater, especially lakes, is riskier. It’s also possible to get an outer ear infection from spending lots of time in humid weather or even just showering if enough moisture gets stuck inside your ear canal, Yin Ren, MD, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology head and neck surgery at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF.

Some people are more likely to develop swimmer’s ear than others, Elliott Kozin MD, surgeon at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and assistant professor of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at Harvard Medical School, tells SELF. It’s more common in children and if you’ve had ear surgery in the past, you may be more prone to all types of ear infections, he says.

Other risk factors include having a skin condition like psoriasis or eczema in the ear; using dirty earbuds or hearing aids; certain chemicals in hair products like hair dyes or hairsprays; producing too little earwax; and injury to the ear canal from cotton swabs or other objects you may use to try to clean your ears.

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What do swimmer’s ear symptoms feel like?

There’s no sugarcoating it: Swimmer’s ear symptoms suck. One reason for that is there’s “hardly any soft tissue between the bone and skin” in your ear canal, Courtney Voelker, MD, PhD, board-certified neurotologist and director of the adult and pediatric cochlear implant program at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, tells SELF. “The skin is literally laying on the bone.” This makes the area pretty sensitive. “When there is any swelling between the bone and skin, it pulls the skin away from the bone, and that can be extremely painful,” adds Dr. Voelker.

This pain can be particularly intense when you pull or press on the ear, Tiffany Chao, MD, an assistant professor of otorhinolaryngology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, tells SELF.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, other signs of swimmer’s ear can include:

  • Pain that spreads from your ear to the side of your face
  • Itchiness inside the ear
  • Ear pressure, or feeling like your ear is blocked or full
  • Drainage from the ear (think: possibly smelly, yellow/green pus oozing from your ear)
  • Swelling and/or redness of the ear (discoloration will depend on your skin tone)
  • Trouble hearing out of the affected ear
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes around the ears and upper neck

Ear infections can be complicated, so you should try to get any persistent pain or discomfort checked out by a physician. “There can certainly be overlap in the symptoms and signs of swimmer’s ear with other types of ear infections, so seeing a doctor to distinguish them is important,” Dr. Chao says.

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How to prevent swimmer’s ear

The best way to spare yourself from the pain of this infection is to do your best to avoid it. Per the Mayo Clinic and the experts we spoke with, here are some swimmer’s ear prevention strategies to note:

  • Tip your head to each side after you swim or bathe to encourage water drain to from your ear canal.
  • Use over-the-counter, designated swimmer’s ear drops that contain alcohol to help dry up moisture if it feels like water is stuck.
  • Avoid swimming in lakes and rivers on days that have high bacteria count warnings. (Check your state’s health or environmental department for alerts, especially during the warmer months.)
  • Avoid putting your head underwater in hot tubs and spas.
  • Use earplugs and a swim cap while you swim.
  • Place cotton balls in or cover your ears when you dye your hair.
  • Don’t put cotton swabs and similar items in your ear.

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What does swimmer’s ear treatment usually look like?

To diagnose you with swimmer’s ear, your doctor should take note of all your symptoms and then examine your ear with a tool called an otoscope, which shines a light into the ear canal, the Mayo Clinic explains. (They’ll be looking for redness, swelling, scaliness, and other signs of inflammation.) They should also check out your eardrum to make sure it isn’t torn or damaged, and may take a sample of any discharge or fluid in your ears to test it for pathogens.

Swimmer’s ear treatment is, thankfully, pretty straightforward. You’ll likely be given prescription ear drops, which may contain an antibiotic, antifungal, steroid, or acetic acid—or a combo of these—depending on the cause of your infection.

Your doctor may also recommend oral pain medications like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB), naproxen sodium (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to help ease the discomfort, the Mayo Clinic notes.

During an active infection, it’s also crucial to keep your ears dry, Dr. Kozin says. That means avoiding water-related hangouts, like swimming or hitting up the sauna, and taking some precautions when you can’t fully avoid H2O. While bathing, for example, Dr. Voelker recommends putting a cotton ball in your ear (we know, not fun!) and covering the outside of it in petroleum jelly to repel water and protect your ear canal from moisture. There are even little ear “shower caps” you can buy ($12, Amazon) that fit over your ears to protect them.

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Will swimmer’s ear go away by itself in some cases?

Unfortunately, nope—you need to see a doctor for this one, Dr. Ren says. (The swimmer’s ear drops you may spot at your local drugstore are usually made with isopropyl alcohol to help dry out the ear canal and are only useful for preventing swimmer’s ear, not treating it, Dr. Kwong says.)

Things can get even more unpleasant if you just try to wait it out. “If left untreated, the ear canal may swell, resulting in severe pain and requiring prolonged antibiotic treatment,” Dr. Kozin says. An untreated swimmer’s ear infection can also lead to a slew of potential complications, including bone and cartilage damage, temporary hearing loss, and rarely, a more widespread infection in the brain and nearby nerves, the Mayo Clinic notes.

If you suspect you have swimmer’s ear, or any type of ear infection for that matter, Dr. Kwong says it’s pretty crucial to seek care as soon as you can. “There’s no over-the-counter medication to treat it,” he urges, “and it will get worse.”

Most people with a mild case of swimmer’s ear feel better within 7 to 10 days after they start treatment, per the Cleveland Clinic. If you have a more severe case, it could take longer for the medication to kick in. So, the sooner you see your doc, the quicker you can get on your way to healing—and filling your summer days with refreshing swims, dips, and dives.

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  1. StatPearls, Neuroanatomy, Ear
  2. StatPearls, Otitis Externa