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What are Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear?


Updated May 09, 2011

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

What are Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear?

symptoms of swimmer's ear affect the outer ear canal

Photo © A.D.A.M.
Question: What are Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear?
Swimmer's ear is an infection of the outer ear that is caused by getting contaminated water in the ear, particularly if the water stays inside the ear for a prolonged period of time.

Swimmer's ear is not the same thing as a middle ear infection (otitis media), which is inside of the ear and experienced by almost all children. While swimmer's ear is common among children, anyone can get swimmer's ear. Symptoms of swimmer's ear include:

Rarely swimmer's ear can spread to parts of the body other than the outer ear canal. If this happens, symptoms of a more systemic infection are likely to occur, including:

  • fever
  • pain around the bones and tissues at the base of the skull may indicate a related and more serious condition called malignant otitis externa

If you are not sure whether your condition is a middle ear infection or swimmer's ear, there are a few key differences. Swimmer's ear is very painful to the outer ear -- so if you touch your ear and experience pain, you may have swimmer's ear. A middle ear infection will not cause visible swelling, itchiness, or pain to the outer portion of the ear (the cartilage portion of the ear, which can be easily seen and felt).

Certain risk factors make it more likely that you will develop symptoms of swimmer's ear. These include:

  • unnecessary removal of ear wax (cerumen)
  • putting any foreign object into the ear, even a q-tip
  • scratching your ear (this damages the skin and makes it easier for germs to get in)
  • swimming in contaminated water, including commercial swimming pools and hot tubs

It is important to see a doctor if you have symptoms of swimmer's ear so that you can get antibiotics to treat the infection. Untreated swimmer's ear may cause so much swelling that tissues may block access to the ear canal. If this happens your doctor will insert a wick into your ear which will allow antibiotic ear drops to be administered.

  • click here to see an offsite picture of swimmer's ear


    CDC. Swimmer's Ear. Accessed: May 3, 2011 from http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/rwi/illnesses/swimmers-ear.html

    Medline Plus. Swimmer's Ear. Accessed: May 3, 2011 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000622.htm

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