Ear infections can be caused by leaving contaminated water in the ear after swimming. This infection, known as “swimmer’s ear” or otitis externa, is not the same as the common childhood middle ear infection. The infection occurs in the outer ear canal and can cause pain and discomfort for 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 ear infections, swimmer’s ear, and healthy swimming.
"Swimmer's Ear" (Otitis Externa)
What are the symptoms of swimmer's ear?
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.
How is swimmer's ear spread at recreational water venues?
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 healthcare provider. Swimmer’s ear can be treated with antibiotic ear drops.
Is there a difference between a childhood middle ear infection and swimmer's ear?
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.
How do I protect myself and my family?
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 healthcare provider.
CONSULT your healthcare 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 healthcare 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 (chlorine or bromine) levels.
For more information on protecting yourself and others when using pools and hot tubs, please see the How to Swim Healthy page.
- CDC. Estimated burden of acute otitis externa—United States, 2003–2007. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep.2011;60:605-609.
- Page last reviewed: May 4, 2016
- Page last updated: May 4, 2016
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