Swimmer's ear is an infection in the outer ear canal, which runs from your eardrum to the outside of your head. It's often brought on by water that remains in your ear after swimming, creating a moist environment that aids bacterial growth.
Putting fingers, cotton swabs or other objects in your ears also can lead to swimmer's ear by damaging the thin layer of skin lining your ear canal.
Swimmer's ear is also known as otitis externa. The most common cause of this infection is bacteria invading the skin inside your ear canal. Usually you can treat swimmer's ear with eardrops. Prompt treatment can help prevent complications and more-serious infections.
Keep your ears dry. Dry your ears thoroughly after exposure to moisture from swimming or bathing. Dry only your outer ear, wiping it slowly and gently with a soft towel or cloth. Tip your head to the side to help water drain from your ear canal. You can dry your ears with a blow dryer if you put it on the lowest setting and hold it at least a foot (about 0.3 meters) away from the ear.
At-home preventive treatment. If you know you don't have a punctured eardrum, you can use homemade preventive eardrops before and after swimming. A mixture of 1 part white vinegar to 1 part rubbing alcohol may help promote drying and prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi that can cause swimmer's ear. Pour 1 teaspoon (about 5 milliliters) of the solution into each ear and let it drain back out. Similar over-the-counter solutions may be available at your drugstore.
Swim wisely. Watch for signs alerting swimmers to high bacterial counts and don't swim on those days.
Avoid putting foreign objects in your ear. Never attempt to scratch an itch or dig out earwax with items such as a cotton swab, paper clip or hairpin. Using these items can pack material deeper into your ear canal, irritate the thin skin inside your ear or break the skin.
Protect your ears from irritants. Put cotton balls in your ears while applying products such as hair sprays and hair dyes.
Use caution after an ear infection or surgery. If you've recently had an ear infection or ear surgery, talk to your doctor before you go swimming.
Swimmer's ear symptoms are usually mild at first, but they may get worse if your infection isn't treated or spreads. Doctors often classify swimmer's ear according to mild, moderate and advanced stages of progression.
Mild signs and symptoms
Itching in your ear canal
Slight redness inside your ear
Mild discomfort that's made worse by pulling on your outer ear (pinna, or auricle) or pushing on the little "bump" (tragus) in front of your ear
Some drainage of clear, odorless fluid
More intense itching
More extensive redness in your ear
Excessive fluid drainage
Discharge of pus
Feeling of fullness inside your ear and partial blockage of your ear canal by swelling, fluid and debris
Decreased or muffled hearing
Severe pain that may radiate to your face, neck or side of your head
Complete blockage of your ear canal
Redness or swelling of your outer ear
Swelling in the lymph nodes in your neck
When to see a doctor
Contact your doctor if you're experiencing any signs or symptoms of swimmer's ear, even if they're mild. Visit the emergency room if you have severe pain or fever.