Otitis Externa (Swimmer's Ear)

Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) is a painful inflammation of the external ear canal that often affects children and teens. Swimmer’s ear is caused by fungi or bacteria. Water that gets trapped in the ear canal after swimming, for example, may let bacteria and fungi grow.

It’s important to seek prompt medical treatment of swimmer’s ear because if it’s left untreated, complications can develop, including:

  • Temporary hearing loss from a swollen and inflamed ear canal
  • Ear infections that keep coming back
  • Bone and cartilage damage
  • Infection of the tissue around the ear 
  • Infections that spread from the ear to the bones of the head or skull

The ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists in the Division of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Cooper University Health Care are experts in diagnosing and treating swimmer’s ear.

Why Choose Cooper to Treat Otitis Externa (Swimmer’s Ear)

Cooper’s fellowship-trained otolaryngologists (ear, nose, and throat specialists) are uniquely qualified to diagnose and treat all the conditions that can affect this part of the body, and they have extensive experience in successfully treating swimmer’s ear in children and teens.

Risk Factors for Otitis Media (Swimmer’s Ear)

Many different things can make it more likely for your child to get swimmer's ear. Swimming or being in other wet, humid conditions are common causes. Other possible causes are:

  • Rough cleaning of the ear canal
  • Injury to the ear canal
  • Dry skin in the ear canal
  • Foreign object in the ear canal
  • Too much earwax
  • Skin conditions such as eczema and other kinds of dermatitis

Children are more likely to get swimmer’s ear if they:

  • Go swimming or get their ears wet in other ways, such as dipping their head under water when bathing or showering
  • Injure the ear canal, such as from cleaning it too often or scratching it
  • Use hearing aids, earphones, or swimming caps
  • Have skin irritation from allergies or other skin conditions

Symptoms of Otitis Externa (Swimmer’s Ear)

Swimmer’s ear can cause the following symptoms:

  • Redness of the outer ear
  • Itching in the ear
  • Pain, especially when touching or wiggling the ear lobe
  • Drainage from the ear
  • Swollen glands in the neck
  • Swollen ear canal
  • Muffled hearing or hearing loss
  • Full or plugged-up feeling in the ear

How Otitis Externa (Swimmer’s Ear) Is Diagnosed

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask questions about your child’s health history and current symptoms, and examine your child, including the ears.

The provider will use a lighted instrument called an otoscope to look in your child’s ear. This helps reveal if there is also an infection in the middle ear called otitis media. Although this infection usually does not occur with swimmer’s ear, some children may have both types of infections.

Your child’s healthcare provider may also take a culture of the drainage from the ear to help plan the best treatment.

How Otitis Externa (Swimmer’s Ear) Is Treated

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, general health, and how severe the condition is. Swimmer’s ear, when properly treated by a healthcare provider, usually clears up within 7 to 10 days. Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotic ear drops
  • Corticosteroid ear drops
  • Pain medicine
  • Keeping the ear dry

It’s also important to take steps to prevent swimmer’s ear in the future. Consider these tips:

  • Use ear plugs for swimming or bathing
  • Gently clean your child’s ear canal
  • Dry ears well, especially after swimming

A technique to help dry the ears is to use a hair dryer set to the low or cool setting. Hold the dryer at least 12 inches from your child’s head. Wave the dryer slowly back and forth (don’t hold it still).

Your child’s healthcare provider also may recommend drops to help dry the ears.

Contact Us

To learn more about the services available in the Division of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery or to schedule an appointment, please call 856.342.3113.