Swimmer’s Ear in Adults: What You Need to Know


If you’re a parent or if you spend time around young kids, you might be familiar with swimmer’s ear in children. Kids can be particularly susceptible to swimmer’s ear, especially those who spend a lot of time in the water. Kids, however, are not the only ones who can get swimmers ear; adults can also come down with swimmers ear, especially avid swimmers, water polo players, and other watersports participants. If you think you may have swimmers ear or are likely to come down with it in the future, here are a few things to know about swimmer’s ear and how to prevent it.

What is Swimmer’s Ear?

Otitis externa, also known as swimmer’s ear, is a common type of ear infection. Swimmer’s ear happens when you spend prolonged amounts of time in the water and your ear canals do not fully dry. This creates a place for bacteria to grow within the ear canal, which causes the painful infection.

Signs of mild and moderate swimmer’s ear include:

  • Ear canal itching
  • Redness inside your ear
  • Fluid drainage from the ear canals
  • Hard time hearing
  • Pain when touching the outer ear

Signs of severe swimmer’s ear include:

  • Blockage of the ear canal
  • Fever
  • Swollen outer ear and lymph nodes
  • Pain in areas surrounding your ear such as face, neck, and sides of head

Swimmer’s Ear vs. Ear Infection

Unlike otitis media, the type of ear infection you may get when you are sick, otitis externa is an infection in your outer ear, whereas otitis media affects your middle ear. One can usually identify swimmer’s ear by gently placing your finger in your ear canal. If this is immediately painful, you may have swimmer’s ear. These two types of infection are not typically correlated, and if you are susceptible to one that does not mean you are susceptible to the other.

Who is At Risk for Swimmer’s Ear?

People who spend lots of time in the water are at highest risk for swimmers ear, as these individuals are the most likely to have repeated water build up in their ear canals. Those who swim in lakes may be more likely than pool-swimmers to contract swimmer’s ear because lakes typically have higher bacteria counts, especially towards peak swimming season during the summer. Pool swimmers, however, can also be affected, especially if the pool has a high bacteria level. Finally, those with narrow ear canals are more likely to be affected by swimmer’s ear, because their ear structure makes it harder for water to drain after swimming.

How To Prevent Swimmer’s Ear

The best ways to prevent swimmer’s ear are to limit water exposure in the ear canals, and to throughout dry ears after swimming. Swimming with caps or earplugs can help prevent water from entering the ear canals while submerged.

Getting water out of your ears after swimming is another preventative measure to avoid swimmer’s ear.  Using a towel to throughout dry your ear can sometimes get the job done, however that won’t always remove water trapped in your ear canal. We recommend the acQuaMD, a doctor recommended device that uses ultrasonic vibrations to safely remove water from your ears, to ensure all water is out of your ear and to reduce your risk of swimmer’s ear.

How Long Does Swimmer’s Ear Last?

When treated, swimmer’s ear symptoms typically start to go away within three days and should fully clear up within ten days. Infections will linger significantly longer without treatment, so it’s important to contact your health care provider in the early stages to avoid long term pain and infection.

Treatment for Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer’s ear is typically treated with careful cleaning and antibacterial or anti-fungal drops in the ear canal. This treatment should come from your primary care provider or ear nose and throat doctor. Follow your doctors instructions for best practices for applying drops, as well as cleaning procedures and when you should return to swimming after treatment.

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