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When Your Child Has “Swimmer’s Ear” Front view of child's ear showing ear structures inside head. Eardrum is at end of ear canal.

If your child spends a lot of time in the water and is having ear pain, he or she may have developed otitis externa. This is also known as “swimmer’s ear.” It is a skin infection that happens in the ear canal, between the opening of the ear and the eardrum. When the ear canal becomes too moist, bacteria can grow. This causes pain, swelling, and redness in the ear canal.

What causes swimmer’s ear?

The most common causes of swimmer’s ear in children are:

  • Swimming or lying down in a bathtub or hot tub.

  • Excessive swabbing inside the ear with a cotton swab. This causes tiny cuts or scratches that easily get infected.

  • Ear canals that are naturally narrow.

  • Excess earwax that traps fluid in the ear canal.

What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear?

Girl lying on side on couch. Woman is putting drops in girl's ear.

The most common symptoms of swimmer’s ear are:

  • Ear pain, especially when pulling on the earlobe or when chewing

  • Itching in the ear

  • Pus-like drainage or a foul odor from the ear

  • Feeling like water is in the ear

  • Fever

  • Problems hearing

How is swimmer’s ear diagnosed?

The health care provider will examine your child. He or she will also ask questions to help rule out other causes of ear pain. The health care provider will look for:

  • Redness and swelling inside the ear canal

  • Drainage from the ear canal that is bloody, clear, or pus-like

How is swimmer’s ear treated?

To treat your child’s ear, the health care provider may recommend:

  • Medications, such as antibiotic eardrops or a topical ear anesthetic (to relieve pain). Your child will likely not need oral antibiotics.

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Do not give ibuprofen to infants less than 6 months of age or to children who are dehydrated or constantly vomiting. Don’t give your child aspirin to relieve a fever. Using aspirin to treat a fever in children could cause a serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.

  • Applying a heating pad (set on low) or hot water bottle to the outer ear to help with pain and increase drainage.

  • Over-the-counter swimmer’s ear remedies (for mild cases).

How is swimmer’s ear prevented?

Ask your child's health care provider about using the following to help prevent swimmer’s ear:

  • After your child has been in the water, have your child tilt his or her head to each side to help any water drain out. You can also dry his or her ear canal using a blow dryer. Using a LOW AIR  and COOL setting, hold the dryer at least 12 inches from your child’s head. Wave the dryer slowly back and forth—don’t hold it still. You may also gently pull the earlobe down and slightly backward to allow the air to reach the ear canal.

  • Use a tissue to gently draw water out of the ear. Your child’s health care provider can show you how.

  • Use over-the-counter eardrops if the healthcare provider suggests. These help dry out the inside of your child’s ear. Smaller children may need to lie down on a couch or bed for a short time to keep the drops inside the ear canal.

  • Don’t clean inside your child’s ear canal with cotton swabs.

Call your child’s health care provider right away if your child has any of the following:

  • Increased pain in the affected ear or redness and swelling of the outer ear

  • Ear pain that persists for 7 days after treatment

  • A rectal temperature of 100.4°F (38.0°C) or higher in an infant younger than 3 months

  • A repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher in a child of any age

  • A fever that lasts more than 24-hours in a child younger than 2 years, or for 3 days in a child 2 years or older

  • A seizure caused by the fever


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