What Actually Is Swimmer’s Ear (and Is It Dangerous)?

This infection causes 2.4 million hospital visits a year.

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Kids and ear infections seem to go together like malls and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. About 75 percent of children suffer a painful ear infection before their third birthday, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

One specific type of ear infection—swimmer’s ear—causes 2.4 million hospital visits a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Its formal name is otitis externa, and it can be acute or chronic.

As the name suggests, swimmer’s ear happens when someone (often a child) spends a long period of time in a pool or other body of water. If unclean water lingers in the outer ear canal, it’s the perfect, moist environment for germs to multiply and contaminate the skin of the ear.

What Are the Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear?

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear usually appear within a few days of exposure to germy water. Here are the signs of an outer ear infection to look for:

  • Itchiness in the ear

  • Redness and swelling in the ear, or in the lymph nodes by the ear

  • Temporary hearing loss

  • Tenderness and pain when the ear is touched or tugged

  • Yellow or greenish pus and drainage from the ear

The best way to tell the difference between swimmer’s ear and a middle ear infection is whether the ear hurts when touched or tugged. A middle ear infection is located deeper in the middle ear, so it generally doesn’t cause pain in the external part of the ear.

Treating and Preventing Swimmer’s Ear

If you or your child ends up with swimmer’s ear, see a doctor. The infection can spread to other parts of the ear or body, so treatment may save you a lot of time, money, and pain.

Swimmer’s ear is usually treated with antibiotic ear drops for up to 14 days. If the infection is really painful, you can also use an OTC pain reliever.

The best treatment for swimmer’s ear is prevention. Following good hygiene when swimming and bathing can help keep infections out of the ear. Try these tips:

  • Use earplugs when swimming.

  • Dry ears well with a towel after getting out of the pool or shower. (Do *not* use a cotton swab.)

  • Don’t remove earwax from your ear. This grime is actually in your ear to help prevent infections, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

  • Stay out of polluted water.

Of course, swimmer’s ear isn’t the only cause for concern in the water. Here are pool safety tips for kids all parents should know, and check out these tips to prevent sunburn in children.