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Swimmer’s Ear in Children

What is swimmer’s ear in children?

Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) is an inflammation from an infection of the external ear canal. Swimmer’s ear is most often caused by bacteria. It may also be caused by fungi. Water that stays in the ear canal during swimming, for instance, may let bacteria and fungi grow.

What causes swimmer’s ear in a child?

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 conditions that may lead to the development of swimmer's ear include:

  • 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

Which children are at risk for swimmer’s ear?

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

  • Go swimming for long periods of time, especially in lake water. This is less likely in correctly maintained recreational pools or in the ocean.

  • Failure to remove excess moisture after swimming

  • Injury to the ear canal, such as cleaning it too often or scratching it

  • Use hearing aids, earphones, or swimming caps

  • Have skin irritation from allergies or other skin conditions

  • Narrow ear canal

What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear in a child?

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

The symptoms of swimmer's ear may seem like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees their healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is swimmer’s ear diagnosed in a child?

Your child’s healthcare provider will ask questions about your child’s health history and current symptoms. They will examine your child, including the ears. The provider may use a lighted tool called an otoscope to look in your child’s ear. This will help the provider know if there is also an infection in the middle ear called otitis media. This infection often doesn't occur with swimmer’s ear, but some children may have both types of infections.

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

How is swimmer’s ear treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Swimmer’s ear, when correctly treated by a healthcare provider, often clears up in 7 to 10 days. Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotic ear drops

  • Corticosteroid ear drops

  • Pain medicine

  • Keeping the ear dry

What are possible complications of swimmer's ear in a child?

Complications of swimmer’s ear include:

  • Short-term (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

What can I do to prevent swimmer’s ear in my child?

Here are some tips to help prevent swimmer’s ear:

  • Use earplugs for swimming or bathing.

  • Dry ears well, especially after swimming. You can buy drops over the counter to use after swimming to dry out the ear canals. Ask your healthcare provider if these are safe for your child.

  • Pull earlobe in different directions while ear is faced down to help water drain out.

  • Don't use cotton swabs in the ears or try to remove earwax.

Another tip 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.

Key points about swimmer’s ear in children

  • Swimmer’s ear is also called otitis externa. It is an inflammation caused by infection of the external ear canal.

  • Water that stays in the ear canal during swimming may let bacteria and fungi grow.

  • Swimmer’s ear often clears up in 7 to 10 days when treated.

  • To help prevent swimmer’s ear, dry your child’s ears well after swimming or bathing.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.