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How is Swimmer's Ear Treated?

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Updated June 07, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

How is Swimmer's Ear Treated?

Swimmer's ear is a common infection.

Getty Images/ Martin Harvey
Question: How is Swimmer's Ear Treated?
Answer:

Swimmer's ear is a common infection that needs to be treated by a doctor. Swimmer's ear is caused by contaminated water entering the ear. It is an infection of the outer ear, unlike otitis media, the ear infections that are so common in children. The infection is generally caused by a bacteria or fungus, and treatment depends on the severity of the infection.

If you're not sure if your pain is caused by swimmer's ear or something else, you may wish to read:

Preparing the Ear for Treatment

In order to give you proper treatment for your swimmer's ear, the outer ear canal must be cleared. Your doctor can do this in the office. He or she will remove any debris that might be blocking the ear canal, (such as ear wax), and if swelling is making the ear canal difficult to access, the doctor can insert a wick so that medicated drops can get inside of the ear.

Do not use ear candles or other methods to try to remove the debris yourself before seeing your doctor, as you can damage the eardrum or introduce new germs into the ear. For more information, read:

Antibiotic Ear Drops

Most cases of swimmer's ear are treated with antibiotic ear drops. The American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery recommends that all uncomplicated cases of swimmer's ear be initially treated with antibiotic ear drops. This limits side effects and the possibility of creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Examples of common antibiotics include ciprofloxacin and neomycin, but there are several options your doctor can choose from.

Oral Antibiotics

If your swimmer's ear does not respond to antibiotic ear drops or if the infection has spread to areas other than your ears, your doctor may choose to give you oral antibiotics.

Antifungal Medication

Although it is much more rare than a bacterial cause, swimmer's ear can be caused by a fungus. Is this case, it needs to be treated with a medication that kills fungus. Examples include nystatin drops or oral drugs like Diflucan (fluconazole).

Steroids

Your doctor may choose to treat the swelling from swimmer's ear with steroid ear drops, such as hydrocortisone or dexamethasone. For convenience, there are also ear drops that contain both an antibiotic and steroid, like CiproDex or Cipro HC. However, depending on your insurance (or lack thereof), combination products tend to be more expensive than buying the medications separately. Keeping your head elevated can also reduce swelling.

Treating the Pain of Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's ear can be a painful condition. You can treat your pain with things at home, such as a heat pack and over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, or your doctor can give you a prescription. Ear drops that contain a local anesthetic, similar to what you get at the dentist's office, are available. In severe cases, your doctor may have to prescribe a narcotic pain medication.

Keep Your Ears Clean and Dry

It is important to keep your ears dry while undergoing treatment for swimmer's ear. Try using a hair dryer on the lowest setting after you get out of the shower to thoroughly dry the ear canal, (be careful not to burn yourself). If possible, you should avoid swimming or getting in a hot tub until you are finished taking antibiotics (usually seven to 10 days, depending on the antibiotic).

Swimmer's ear is curable, but some infections may take longer than others to clear up. Even mild cases of swimmer's ear can be recurring for many people. It's important to take measures to prevent swimmer's ear in the future.

Sources:

Richard M. Rosenfeld, MD, MPH, Lance Brown, MD, MPH, C. Ron Cannon, MD et al. Clinical Practice Guideline: Acute Otitis Externa. 2006. Accessed May, 30, 2011 from the American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery website

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