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Swimmer’s ear is also known as Otitis externa. It is not a contagious disease. A tube like opening carries sound from the outside to the ear drum. When children spend a lot of time in the water, it enters the ear. This moisture can irritate or break the skin in the tube which is the ear canal. Different types of bacteria or fungi then are able to penetrate the canal, causing infection. This infection occurs mostly in the summer when children swim.

What causes swimmer s ear?

Moisture is only one of the causes of Otitis externa. Scratching the ear, eczema, putting pins and paper clips in the ear or over enthusiastic cleaning of the ear with cotton buds can cause the skin in the ear canal to break and lead to an infection. If a child has a middle ear infection and there is formation of pus, that pus can reach the ear canal through a hole in the ear drum. This will cause Otitis externa.


The first symptom will be itching in the ear and then ear pain which progressively get worst. It will be especially severe when the outer part of the ear is pulled. Chewing may also cause pain in some cases. The outer ear may become red and swollen. The ear canal will swell and the child will complain of an uncomfortable feeling in the ear. A clear discharge may come out from the ear canal which will turn whitish and then yellowish like pus. The lymph nodes near the ear become enlarged and painful to touch. If the ear canal swells much or there is pus, hearing might be affected as it will be difficult for the sound to pass through. In most cases there is no fever.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Do not try to treat Otitis externa at home. If the infection spreads the pain will get worst and it may be severe. Till you can get to a doctor you can give ibuprofen or acetaminophen for the pain and place a heating pad near the ear.

The doctor will prescribe ear drops which will contain a steroid to lessen the swelling and antibiotics to act against the infection. These drops will have to be used many times each day for a period of 7 to 10 days. Medication for pain will also be given.

In some cases the swelling may be so much that drops may not reach the area of infection. A doctor will insert a cotton wick in the ear so that the drops reach the affected area. The doctor may have to clean the ear of wax and pus if it is present, by suction or other methods. In addition oral antibiotics may be given to manage infection. If the pain and infection is severe a culture of discharge may be ordered to know the type of bacteria or fungi causing it.

At home follow the doctor’s instructions. Ascertain that no water enters the ear canal of the child while bathing. Give him a shower cap or ear plugs to use to keep his ears dry.

Prevention of swimmer’s ear

If a child gets Otitis externa often, then to prevent it:

  • Alcohol or a dilute solution of acetic can be put in the ears after swimming. These should not be used if the child has a hole in the ear drum. Buy these drops from a bona fide pharmacy.
  • The head should be turned to the side to drain out water from the ears. There after the ears should be dried with a towel.
  • Children should not put any object in their ears. They should not clean their ears themselves, not even with cotton buds.