“Swimmer’s Ear” (Otitis Externa)
Note: PDFs related to this topic are also available: Facts About "Swimmer's Ear" [PDF - 1.38 mb] and Datos sobre la "foliculitis de la bañera" y el "oído de nadador" (Pseudomonas) [PDF - 804 kb] (translation courtesy of the New Mexico Department of Public Health).
Swimmer's ear is a common problem that can cause pain and discomfort for children and swimmers of all ages. In the United States, swimmer’s ear results in an estimated 2.4 million health care visits every year and nearly half a billion dollars in health care costs (1). Below are answers to the most common questions regarding swimmer's ear and healthy swimming.
Swimmer's ear (also known as otitis externa) is an infection of the outer ear canal. Symptoms of swimmer’s ear usually appear within a few days of swimming and include:
- Itchiness inside the ear.
- Redness and swelling of the ear.
- Pain when the infected ear is tugged or when pressure is placed on the ear.
- Pus draining from the infected ear.
Although all age groups are affected by swimmer's ear, it is more common in children and can be extremely painful.
Swimmer’s ear can occur when water stays in the ear canal for long periods of time, providing the perfect environment for germs to grow and infect the skin. Germs found in pools and at other recreational water venues are one of the most common causes of swimmer’s ear.
Swimmer’s ear cannot be spread from one person to another.
If you think you have swimmer's ear, consult your health care provider. Swimmer's ear can be treated with antibiotic ear drops.
Yes. Swimmer's ear is not the same as the common childhood middle ear infection. If you can wiggle the outer ear without pain or discomfort then your ear condition is probably not swimmer's ear.
To reduce the risk of swimmer’s ear:
DO keep your ears as dry as possible.
- Use a bathing cap, ear plugs, or custom-fitted swim molds when swimming.
DO dry your ears thoroughly after swimming or showering.
- Use a towel to dry your ears well.
- Tilt your head to hold each ear facing down to allow water to escape the ear canal.
- Pull your earlobe in different directions while your ear is faced down to help water drain out.
- If you still have water left in your ears, consider using a hair dryer to move air within the ear canal.
- Put the dryer on the lowest heat and speed/fan setting.
- Hold the dryer several inches from your ear.
DON’T put objects in your ear canal (including cotton-tip swabs, pencils, paperclips, or fingers).
DON’T try to remove ear wax. Ear wax helps protect your ear canal from infection.
- If you think that your ear canal is blocked by ear wax, consult your health care provider.
CONSULT your health care provider about using ear drops after swimming.
- Drops should not be used by people with ear tubes, damaged ear drums, outer ear infections, or ear drainage (pus or liquid coming from the ear).
CONSULT your health care provider if you have ear pain, discomfort, or drainage from your ears.
ASK your pool/hot tub operator if disinfectant and pH levels are checked at least twice per day—hot tubs and pools with proper disinfectant and pH levels are less likely to spread germs.
USE pool test strips to check the pool or hot tub yourself for adequate disinfectant and pH levels.
For more detailed information on how to help prevent swimmer’s ear, visit CDC’s Swimmer’s Ear Prevention Tips page.
For more tips on what you can do to help prevent other recreational water illnesses (or RWIs) at your swimming facility, visit CDC’s Triple A’s of Healthy Swimming page.
For more information on ear infections, please see CDC’s Get Smart: Ear Infections page.
- CDC. Estimated burden of acute otitis externa—United States, 2003–2007. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep.2011;60:605-609.