Swimmer’s Ear and Ear Infections: What’s the Difference?

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Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, is inflammation and infection of the external ear canal. Children and adults get swimmer’s ear when water gets into the ear and does not drain properly, typically after swimming or bathing.

Children may complain of itching or pain, especially when the ear is touched or pulled, when they have swimmer’s ear. There may be a yellow-green discharge from the ear canal. If there is significant swelling of the ear canal or if the canal is filled with pus, hearing can be decreased.

Swimmer’s ear is diagnosed based on a medical history and an ear exam with an otoscope. It is different than a middle ear infection or otitis media, which begins with a viral infection such as a common cold. An ear infection settles in the middle ear space causing it to become inflamed, and fluid accumulates behind the ear drum. The fluid then becomes infected with bacteria. Symptoms of an ear infection include ear pain, fever, trouble hearing or increased crying in an infant, especially when lying down. If the eardrum ruptures, fluid may drain out of the ear canal, which can be confused with otitis externa.

A middle ear infection is treated with antibiotics by mouth and acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain and fever. With swimmer’s ear, ear drops may be prescribed to treat certain bacteria or fungi as well as inflammation. Rarely is an oral antibiotic prescribed. The hardest part of the treatment can be keeping the child’s ear as dry as possible during the treatment and healing. Ideally, a child should refrain from swimming and other water sports for 7-10 days.

To prevent swimmer’s ear from recurring, keep your child’s ears dry. Help your child dry his or her ears after swimming or bathing, and consider using ear plugs. You may also apply drops such as Swim-EAR, available over-the-counter, after swimming or make a homemade concoction of rubbing alcohol or an equal mixture of alcohol and white vinegar. The vinegar helps to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi.

For more information about ear infections, go to healthychildren.org.

Dr. Erin H. Stubbs is a board-certified pediatrician at CMC – Myers Park Pediatrics.