Swimmer’s Ear Facts and Prevention Methods


tere-jones-author-101613 Time to go swimming! We are right in the heat of summer, and when I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I spent most of my summer days swimming. My mother put me, my brother and sister in swimming lessons every summer at the local public pool. When I wasn’t in classes, I was in the neighbor’s backyard pool. Along with all the fun of swimming comes the possibility of getting something called “swimmer’s ear” or acute otitis externa (AOE).

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear is an inflammation of the outer ear canal that can cause extreme pain and discomfort. The inflammation can extend from the ear drum clear out to the pinna, tragus or both (see diagram).

ear anatomySwimmer’s Ear Facts and Prevention Methods

I spoke with Jeffrey Koempel, MD, MBA, chief of pediatric otolaryngology at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for help on this blog and he gave me some great information that I would like to pass on to you.

According to a current medical study, 98 percent of cases of swimmer’s ear in North America yearly are caused by bacteria. The most common type of bacterial causes are Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staph aureus. These bacteria can come from swimming pools or other recreational swimming places like lakes, ponds, etc. Swimmer’s ear is most often caused by:

  • Being in the water for a long time
  • Water sitting in the ear canal for long periods of time

This gives bacteria time to get in your child’s ears and cause problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state this condition is more common in children than adults, and occurs more often, but not always, in hot, humid climates. Thankfully, swimmer’s ear is not contagious and once diagnosed can easily be treated with the proper medicine.

What are symptoms of swimmer’s ear?

  • Itchiness in ear canal
  • Pain when the pinna of the ear is pulled
  • Pain when pressure is placed on the tragus of the ear
  • Pain in the ear canal when chewing
  • Redness and sometimes swelling of the ear

If your child has any of these symptoms, Dr. Koempel recommends that your child see their doctor for an exam and diagnosis as soon as possible. Your primary doctor may treat you or refer you to a specialist for treatment such as an Otolaryngologist, or “Ear, Nose and Throat doctor”.

What is the usual treatment for swimmer’s ear?

  1. Pain medication to control the pain
  2. Antibiotic ear drops are used if there is an infection diagnosed
  3. Rarely are oral antibiotics used for swimmer’s ear unless the infection is severe and has spread outside of the ear itself

There are also some “home remedies” out there for swimmer’s ear that I read about during my research, but you should always consult your physician before trying any of these types of treatments.

There are several steps that you can take to decrease your child’s risk of getting swimmer’s ear. Sometimes staying completely out of the pool is simply not an option! It certainly wasn’t for me. The best way is to be sure that your child’s ears stay dry during swimming and if not, to dry them thoroughly afterwards.

How do I keep my child’s ears dry?

  • Have your child wear a swimming cap or ear plugs during swimming
  • Dry your child’s ears with a towel or soft cloth after getting out of the pool
  • Have your child tip their head to each side to help drain excess water out
  • While your child tips their head, you can gently pull the outer ear in different directions to help drain the excess water
  • DO NOT stick any objects in to the ears to dry them, including a cotton swab

In summary, swimmer’s ear can often be avoided, even for the most enthusiastic swimmers. However, if you identify any of the above symptoms, get your child to their doctor for diagnosis and treatment. If your child is being treated for any problems with the ears, check with their doctor about the safety of swimming.  I hope this helps because I want all of you to have a fun, safe and healthy summer!