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Swimmers' ear

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Swimmers' ear is a form of otitis externa, an inflammation or infection of the canal between the eardrum and the external opening of the ear.

Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, is an inflammation or infection of the ear canal, which is the passage that runs between the external opening of the ear that you can see and the eardrum.


The symptoms of swimmer’s ear tend to develop quickly, usually over a day or two, and while they’re typically mild at first, they can get worse if the infection isn’t treated or it starts to spread.

Depending on the severity of the infection, symptoms may include:

  • Earache, sometimes accompanied by itching or a sense of fullness inside the ear and tenderness around the ear. The pain may be exacerbated if you pull on the ear, push the little ‘bump’ in front of the ear, or even move your head a certain way.
  • Hearing may be muffled or reduced, and a buzzing, humming or ringing in the ears may occur.
  • A discharge from the affected ear. This may start out clear, before becoming yellow or green coloured and developing a foul odour as the infection progresses.
  • Fever and severe pain that might affect your face, neck or side of your head, if the infection becomes advanced.

  • Causes

    Usually the result of a bacterial infection, as the name suggests, swimmer’s ear can develop when water remains in the ear after swimming, which creates an ideal environment for bacterial growth.

    Swimming in dirty, or contaminated water can increase the risk of infection – but it’s also true that you don’t have to go swimming at all to get swimmer’s ear. Other things that can cause otitis externa include:

  • Excess moisture in the ear canal from sweating or from being exposed to persistently humid weather.
  • Damage to the ear’s delicate tissues caused by trying to clean the ears with items like cotton buds, hairclips or even fingernails. Even ear devices like earbuds or hearing aids can cause tiny breaks in the skin, which creates an opportunity for infection to occur.
  • Chemical irritation from things like hairsprays and shampoos, which can irritate the ear canal tissues.

  • Treatment

    There are a range of treatments that can be used for swimmer’s ear depending on how severe the infection is as well as the specific bacteria that’s causing the problem.

    Treatment may include:

  • Cleaning and drainage of the ear canal
  • Strategies to keep the ear canal dry, like wearing a shower cap or ear plugs when you’re bathing and avoiding swimming until the infection is resolved
  • Painkillers
  • Antibiotic or steroid-based ear drops
  • Oral antibiotics
  • If left untreated, swimmer’s ear can become a chronic condition or may even cause some ongoing complications, some of which can be quite serious, so it’s important to see your doctor and begin treatment once you notice symptoms.


    To reduce the risk of swimmer’s ear from occurring or reoccurring:

  • Don't swim in dirty or polluted water.
  • Protect your ears when swimming by wearing earplugs or a swimming cap.
  • Clear the water from your ears after swimming or bathing by tipping your head to the side to help the water drain from your ear canal. Using suitable eardrops immediately after swimming to dry and disinfect the ear canal may also help.
  • Don’t use cotton buds or other items to clear wax from your ears.
  • Don’t use soap to wash out the ears, as this can alter the pH of the ear canal, predisposing you to infection.
  • Plug your ears with cotton wool when you’re using chemical irritants like hairspray or shampoo.
  • Ensure any hearing aids you wear fit well.

  • Important notes

    Serious consequences can arise from untreated ear infections, so it’s important that you consult your healthcare professional if you or your child are displaying symptoms of infection or develop hearing problems.

    Get free personalised advice from our team of qualified naturopaths here

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