Preventing Swimmer's Ear

Key points

  • Swimmer’s ear is a bacterial infection caused by water that stays in the outer ear canal for a long period of time, providing a moist environment for bacteria to multiply.
  • Children are more likely to get swimmer's ear than adults, but it can affect anyone.
  • Swimmer’s ear is not contagious.


Swimmer's ear (also known as acute otitis externa) is a bacterial infection. It is typically caused by water that has stayed in the outer ear canal for a long time. This wears down protective wax and skin and provides a moist environment for bacteria to multiply.

Anyone can get swimmer's ear, but it is most often seen in children. Swimmer's ear cannot be spread from one person to another.

Swimmer's ear is different from a middle ear infection, which is also common in children.

Signs and symptoms of swimmer's ear

  • Pain when the outer ear is tugged or when pressure is put on the part of the outer ear that sticks out in front of the ear canal (tragus)
  • Itchiness inside the ear
  • Drainage from the ear
  • Redness and swelling in the ear

Prevention steps and strategies

Keep ears as dry as possible

  • Use a bathing cap, ear plugs, or custom-fitted swim molds when swimming.

Dry ears thoroughly after swimming or showering

  • Tilt head back and forth so that each ear faces down to allow water to drain out of the ear canal.
  • Use a towel to dry ears well.
  • Pull earlobe in different directions when ear faces down to help water drain out.
  • If water remains, you can use a hair dryer on the lowest heat and speed/fan setting. Hold the hair dryer several inches from ear.

Check with your healthcare provider about using ear-drying drops after swimming

  • Don't use these drops if you have ear tubes (tympanostomy tubes), punctured ear drums, swimmer's ear, or ear drainage.

Don't put objects in ear canal

  • Including cotton-tip swabs, pencils, paperclips, or keys.

Don't try to remove ear wax

  • Ear wax helps protect the ear canal from infection.


  • Check with your healthcare provider if you have ear pain or drainage from the ear.
  • Swimmer's ear can be treated with antibiotic ear drops.