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Eye and Ear Problems

Swimmer's Ear

Prevention - Home Treatment - When to Call a Health Professional

Swimmer's ear (otitis externa) is inflammation or infection of the ear canal (the passage leading from the external ear to the eardrum). It often develops after water has gotten into the ear, especially after swimming. Sand or other debris that gets into the ear canal may also cause swimmer's ear.

A scratch inside the ear or injury from a cotton swab or other object can cause inflammation in the ear canal.

Symptoms include pain, itching, and a feeling of fullness in the ear. The ear canal may be swollen. A more severe inflammation or infection can cause increased pain, discharge from the ear, and possibly some hearing loss. Unlike a middle ear infection (otitis media), the pain of ear canal inflammation or infection is worse when you chew, when you press on the "tag" in front of the ear, or when you wiggle your earlobe.


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  • Keep your ears dry. After swimming or showering, shake your head to remove water from the ear canal. Gently dry your ears with the corner of a tissue or towel, or use a blow dryer on its lowest setting, held several inches from your ear.

  • Put a few drops of rubbing alcohol or alcohol mixed with an equal amount of white vinegar in the ear after swimming or showering. Wiggle the outside of the ear to let the liquid enter the ear canal; then tilt your head and let it drain out. You can also use nonprescription drops (Vosol) to prevent swimmer's ear.

  • Never put anything smaller than an elbow into the ear canal. Avoid prolonged use of earplugs. Putting objects in the ears may plug the ears with wax. See Earwax.

  • Avoid getting soap and shampoo in the ear canal. Remove dirt or sand that gets into the ear while swimming by using a bulb syringe. Or try directing a gentle stream of warm water from the shower into your ear; then tip your head to let the water drain out.

  • Follow any instructions your health professional has given you to treat skin problems (eczema, psoriasis, seborrhea) that may cause ear canal irritation.

Home Treatment

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  • Make sure there isn't an object or insect in the ear. See Objects in the Ear on See Objects in the Ear.

  • If the eardrum may be ruptured or there is drainage from the ear that looks like pus or contains blood, do not insert anything into the ear unless a health professional has told you to do so.

  • Gently rinse the ear using a bulb syringe and a solution of 1 part white vinegar and 1 part rubbing alcohol. Make sure the flushing solution is at body temperature. Putting cool or hot fluids in the ear may cause dizziness.

  • Avoid getting water in the ear until the irritation clears up. Cotton coated with petroleum jelly can be used as an earplug. Do not use plastic earplugs.

  • If your ear is itchy, try nonprescription swimmer's eardrops (see Prevention). Use them before and after swimming or getting your ears wet.

  • To insert eardrops, have the person lie down, ear facing up. Warm the drops first by rolling the container between your hands. Place drops on the wall of the ear canal in small quantities so air can escape and drops can get into the ear. Wiggling the outer ear will help. See illustration.

  • You may find it easier to put eardrops in a small child's ear if you have the child lie down on your lap with his or her legs wrapped around your waist.

  • To ease ear pain, apply a warm washcloth or a heating pad set on low. (Don't use a heating pad on an infant, and never leave a child alone with a heating pad.) There may be some drainage when the heat melts earwax. As long as the drainage does not contain pus or blood, it is not of concern.

    Never stick a dropper into the ear canal. Put drops on the outer ear near the opening of the ear canal, and gently wiggle the ear until the drops flow into the canal.

  • Acetaminophen or aspirin may also help relieve pain. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20.

When to Call a Health Professional

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  • If ear pain and itching persist or worsen after 3 days of Home Treatment.

  • If the ear canal is swollen, red, and very painful.

  • If redness extends to the outer ear.

  • If there is redness or swelling behind the ear.

  • If there is discharge from the ear that does not look like earwax.

  • If ear pain follows a cold. See Colds.


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