What Is Swimmer's Ear?

A woman winces as she touches her ear
Getty Images / Ian Hooton

Swimmer's ear is a common affliction among swimmers that is characterized by a slowly developing pain in the ear. It can start with an itchy-ear feeling after a swim that, in time, intensifies to pain. The pain can be particularly bad when the ear is touched or pulled. 

Prevention

The CDC's recommendations for preventing swimmer's ear include "reducing exposure of the ears to water (e.g., using ear plugs or swim caps and using alcohol-based ear-drying solutions)."

Note: If you have already developed symptoms of an ear infection, have a history of earache problems, perforated eardrums, ear tubes, other possible complications, or any other reason to doubt the cause of your earache, consult a physician.

Cause and Treatment

Your ear is an ideal place for a bacterial or fungal infection to grow. Swimmer's ear can be caused by water becoming trapped in the ear canal after a swim, leading to an infection.

As always, it is best to consult your physician before taking any steps to treat an infection on your own. Some people may have success in using earplugs to limit or prevent water from getting in the ears in the first place, but these are not always effective. The best way to both prevent and cure swimmer's ear is to dry your ear canal. You can use commercially-available products to dry the ears, but you can also make your own. Mix equal parts of rubbing alcohol and distilled white vinegar and instill one to two drops of this mixture in each ear after a swim. Assuming your physician has given you the OK to use ear drops, a drop or two in each ear after swimming will:

  • Help break the surface tension of the water in your ear so it doesn't cling within the canal
  • Help dry the canal as the alcohol evaporates
  • Promote a slightly acidic pH in your ear canal, creating an inhospitable environment for bacteria and fungus to grow

Don't use swabs or other objects in an attempt to dry the ear canal, since you could cause damage to your eardrum. If you have difficulty using the ear drops method, a product like the EarDryer Electric Dryer might help. 

Returning to the Pool

Physicians give mixed advice on when you can swim again after a bout of swimmer's ear. Some say that as long as you are treating it you don't need to miss any time in the water. Others state that staying out of the pool for 6-10 days is necessary to ensure complete healing; if this is not done, it may take longer for healing to occur. Ask your doctor for advice.