An infection of the outer ear canal is referred to as swimmer’s ear. Learn what causes it, how to treat swimmer’s ear at home, plus ways to prevent it.
Swimmer’s ear can affect anyone regardless of age, but most cases are diagnosed in children between age of 4 to 15. It is more prevalent in the summer because people spend more time in the pool.
Not only swimming, but any activity that involves water getting trapped in the ear can lead to this painful condition known as swimmer’s ear or otitis externa. It is not the same as the common childhood middle ear infection.
In this post, we’ll answer all of your questions about swimmer’s ear, including:
What is Swimmer’s Ear?
Swimmer’s ear or otitis externa is an infection or irritation of the skin lining the outer ear canal. It happens when water stays in the ear canal for long periods of time, providing the perfect environment for germs to grow and infect the skin.
What causes Swimmer’s Ear?
As the name suggest, it is caused by increased moisture trapped in the ear canal from prolonged time in water. Trapped water in ear canal is a breeding ground for bacteria. It is mainly caused by bacteria Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (1) . Sometime, fungus in water is also responsible for occurrence of swimmer’s ear.
Other less common factors that may cause swimmer’s ear include:
- Excessive cleaning of ear canal with cotton swabs
- Contact with moist areas -hot tubs or polluted water- where bacteria breeds
- A cut in the skin of ear canal
- Contact with certain chemicals such as hair spray or hair dye
- Other skin condition like eczema or seborrhea
- Ill-fitting hearing aids or contaminated earbuds or earphone
What are the Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear?
Swimmer’s ear is more common in children and can be extremely painful. Just a touch of the ear can be painful when you have swimmer’s ear. The symptoms of swimmer’s ear usually appear within a few days of swimming.
Signs of swimmer’s ear include:
- Itchiness, redness and swelling of the ear
- Ear feeling full
- Fluid or Pus draining from the ear.
- Swollen side of the face
- Decreased hearing
- Painful jaw
- Swollen lymph nodes of the neck
- Temporary hearing loss
How to Treat Swimmer’s Ear at Home
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Early stage of swimmer’s ear is easy to treat at home. Certain home remedies are really helpful in reducing bacteria and inflammation. It is advisable to check with your doctor before trying any home remedies.
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1. Garlic oil
Garlic has natural antibacterial, anti fungal, antiviral properties (2) and can be used to treat swimmer’s ear. I have often used garlic oil for the treatment of other type of ear infection with great results. Garlic oil also works great for treatment of swimmer’s ear.
How to use Garlic oil:
- Put 3-5 drops of Garlic-mullien oil into affected ear.
- Plug the ear with cotton ball and lie down
- let oil stay in ear undisturbed for 10-15 min
- Let the oil drain out of ear when you get up
- Repeat twice a day
You can also make your own garlic oil at home. Grate several fresh cloves of garlic into a jar with extra virgin olive oil and leave it overnight. Garlic oil is ready once you strain out the garlic pieces.
If you are not comfortable putting oil into the affected ear, specially when you don’t know if eardrum is intact or not, you can simply slice a clove of garlic and place it between two pieces of gauze. Place this gauze on the outside of the ear to fight infection and apply warm pack over it for heat effect for 45 min. This isn’t as effective as garlic oil but helps relieve some pain and is safer.
2. Hydrogen Peroxide
Hydrogen peroxide has antiseptic and antibacterial properties (3) that may help kill bacteria in the ear. Although there is controversy about its effectiveness in killing bacteria, as it also can destroy healthy bacteria.Therefore it is recommended to dilute 1:1 ratio of hydrogen peroxide with water (4)
How to use Hydrogen peroxide to treat Swimmer’s ear:
- Dilute one part of hydrogen peroxide with one part of water
- Dip cotton swab into the solution and gently clean the ear canal
- Or place 2 to 3 drops of solution into the ear. Leave it for 30 seconds
- Drain the solution by tilting your head.
3. Vinegar and Rubbing Alcohol
These two ingredients work as a team to help relieve swimmer’s ear. The alcohol combines water in the ear and then evaporates while acidity of vinegar helps prohibit growth of the bacteria (5).
How to use these ingredients:
- Mix one part of rubbing alcohol and one part of white vinegar
- With an eye dropper, add a 6-8 drops into the affected ear
- Allow the drops to stay in for a few seconds and then drain
- Do not put solution into ear if eardrum is ruptured.
4. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is miracle cure for almost everything. Although, there is no scientific evidence to support this, but it can work for swimmer’s ear too. The acidity of vinegar may help kill ad stop the spread of bacteria in the ear.
How to use apple cider vinegar to treat swimmer’s ear:
- Place a few drops of undiluted apple cider vinegar in the ear.
- Let sit for 15 minutes.
- Drain it out when you get up.
5. Heat Therapy
Quick way to ease discomfort when someone is complaining about earache is heat therapy. Heat can help soothe pain and inflammation caused by swimmer’s ear.
How to use heat to treat swimmer’s ear:
Apply a heating pad or hot water bottle wrapped in cloth against the infected ear for 15-20 minutes. You can apply heat multiple times a day (6)
6. Essential Oil
Some essential oils have antibacterial-which is helpful for killing harmful strain of bacteria-or antiviral properties-which prevents virus from replicating in your body.
The terpinen-4-ol in tea tree oil has antibacterial properties that kills off bacterial that it comes into contact with (7). Also, basil oil has been shown effective in treating acute ear infection in rats (8). Although, there are no scientific evidence of its effectiveness in human.
How to use Essential oils to treat swimmer’s ear:
- Essential oils should be diluted in carrier oil before use
- Mix 2 drops of basil essential oil and 2 drops of tea tree oil in 1 teaspoon of warm olive oil
- Rub the diluted oil on the skin around the ear, behind the ear and on the neck
- Never put essential oil directly into ear canal
Do you need antibiotics for Swimmer’s Ear
Few cases of swimmer’s ear require antibiotic. After treatment with home remedies, if symptoms of swimmer’s ear still persist or become severe, call your doctor.
Doctor may prescribe ear drops that contains antibiotics to fight the infection. Usually ear drops are given several times a day for 7-10 days. After application of antibiotic ear drops, ear feels better at day 2 to 3. But It is important to use ear drop for the duration of prescription. Swimmer’s ear is usually cured within 7 to 10 days after starting antibiotic treatment.
More severe cases of swimmer’s ear require doctor to insert wick into the canal to help carry ear drop inside the ear. In these cases, doctor need to clean the ear to remove build up for ear drops to work effectively (9).
Some cases of swimmer’s ear also require prescription of oral antibiotics.
Regardless of what you are using to treat swimmer’s ear -antibiotic drops or home remedies- watch following video to learn how to use ear drops properly.
Can you go swimming if you have an ear infection?
eMedicine Health (10) recommends that you should stay away from swimming whenever you suffer from Swimmers Ear to avoid further water contact on the infected ear.
Can outer ear infection heal on its own?
Outer ear infections may heal on their own without treatment after a few days or weeks. But the chronic infection may last longer. There is also a possibility of it spreading to nearby tissue (11).
How can you Prevent Swimmer’s Ear?
Although you can certainly minimize the chance of getting swimmer’s ear with precaution, but there is no way to entirely prevent it – Unless you stay away from any activities that involves water getting trapped into ear canal.
Keeping ear clean and dry can help avoid swimmer’s ear. Following steps can help:
- Keep your ears dry: Thoroughly dry your ears after swimming or showers. Use a soft cloth to dry out ear canal gently. Also, shake your head each side to drain your to ear.
You can also use hair dryer on low setting to dry your ear.
- Before and after swimming: If you are prone to get a swimmer’s ear, place a few drops of rubbing alcohol and vinegar solution mentioned above in ears before and after swimming.
You can also find over the counter swimmer’s ear drop Swim-EAR® to keep ear free from moisture.
- Use ear plug while swimming: Properly fitting ear plug, or swim hat can help prevent water from entering the ear canal
- Avoid use of cotton swabs: Never use cotton swabs to remove earwax as it can push wax deeper into ear canal, trapping moisture behind it.
How about You?
Did you or your child ever get a swimmer’s ear? Which home remedies worked for you. Leave a comment below.
- Texas A & M University Health Science Center. Keeping swimmer’s ears at bay. Updated June 7, 2017.
- Minchin, W. C. (1918) The Germicidal and Therapeutic Action of Garlic. Practitioner, pp. 145–154
- Baldry, The bactericidal, fungicidal and sporicidal properties of hydrogen peroxide and peracetic acid. Journal of Applied Microbiology: June 1983 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2672.1983.tb02637.x)
- Cleveland Clinic. How to Keep Swimmer’s Ear From Ruining Your Summer. Updated July 1, 2014.
- C. F. Carson, K. A. Hammer, T. V. Riley. Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) Oil: a Review of Antimicrobial and Other Medicinal Properties.Clin Microbiol Rev. 2006 Jan; 19(1): 50–62. doi: 10.1128/CMR.19.1.50-62.2006
- Kristinsson KG, Magnusdottir AB, Petersen H, Hermansson A. Effective treatment of experimental acute otitis media by application of volatile fluids into the ear canal. J Infect Dis. 2005 Jun 1;191(11):1876-80. Epub 2005 Apr 29.