COVID-19 Update:Learn more about how we are protecting our patients, families and staff, as well as other important facts about COVID-19.
Pediatric Swimmer's Ear
Key points about swimmer's ear
- 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. And gently clean your child’s ears.
Prevention and Risk Assessment
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.
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
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
Here are some tips to help prevent swimmer’s ear:
- Use ear plugs for swimming or bathing.
- Gently clean your child’s ear canal.
- Dry ears well, especially after swimming.
- Pull earlobe in different directions while ear is faced down to help water drain out.
- Don't use cotton swabs in the ears.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Learn about treatment
Ear, Nose and Throat Treatment at Children's National Hospital
Our team of pediatric ear, nose and throat specialists combines clinical excellence in a compassionate, child-friendly environment. Discover more about the treatments we offer.
Help Kids and Make a Difference
Invest in future cures for some of life's most devastating diseases. Give today to help more children grow up stronger.
Emeritus Chief, Ear, Nose, and Throat (Otolaryngology)
Director, Aerodigestive Clinic
Director, Vascular Anomalies Clinic
Director, Pediatric Otolaryngology Fellowship
Co-Director, Advanced Sleep Apnea Program
Associate Director, Pediatric Otolaryngology Fellowship
Director, Pediatric Voice Program
Director, Quality Improvement and Safety
Co-Director, Complex Sinusitis Program
Division Chief, Ear, Nose, and Throat (Otolaryngology)
Co-Director of the Cochlear Implant Program
Co-Director of the Cochlear Implant Program
Senior Vice President for the Children’s National Hospital-Based Specialties Center
Our pediatric otolaryngology experts diagnose and treat a wide range of pediatric ear, nose and throat disorders.