Swimmer’s ear is a type of infection that affects the outer ear and the ear canal, it is also known as otitis externa. Swimmer’s ear is usually caused by water trapped in the ear.

What happens when water gets stuck in your ear?

Getting water in your ear is a common occurrence, whether it’s from bathing or showering, swimming, sweating or being in a humid environment. In most cases, the water makes its way out of the ear on its own, but sometimes water can get stuck in the ear.

Trapped water, coupled with the warm conditions of the ear, makes it an ideal environment for bacteria to grow and cause an infection, specifically an ear canal infection (otitis externa). This type of ear infection is common in regular swimmers, which is why it also goes by the name of swimmer’s ear.

The infection might also be caused by a scratch in the ear canal that allows bacteria into the break in the skin, or if you have an allergic reaction to certain products or jewellery.

What is swimmer’s ear?

If you submerge your head when swimming, it’s inevitable that water will go into your ears if they aren’t protected by ear plugs. In most cases it will come out, but if the water gets trapped in your ear, it risks growing bacteria which can then cause an infection.

Signs you have water trapped in your ear:

  • Muffled hearing
  • Feeling of fullness in the ear canal
  • Tickly feeling in the ear

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear

Symptoms can be quite mild to begin with, but can get worse over time, particularly without treatment.

  • Itchy ears
  • Redness inside the ear
  • Swelling in the ear canal or outer ear
  • Discomfort or pain (particularly if you pull on your ear)
  • Feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Discharge from the ear
  • Discomfort or pain when you move your jaw, or while you’re eating
  • Muffled hearing in the affected ear

Will water come out of my ear naturally?

Most of the time, any water in your ears will trickle out on its own after a few minutes or hours.

Sometimes it can get trapped due to a narrow ear canal, or if earwax is blocking its way out.

How to get water out of your ear canal

Tip your head

Tip your head to the side or gently tug on your earlobe to encourage the water to move.

Lie on your side

Try lying on your side for a few minutes with your head on a pillow or towel – often the water will slowly drain out.

Pinch your nose

Pinching your nose and exhaling to open the Eustachian tubes

Move your jaw

Move your jaw around by yawning or chewing, then tip your head to the side.

Also try to cup the palm of your hand over your ear and tilt your head to the side, gently pushing and releasing your palm to create a vacuum.

Speak to your GP or pharmacist about ear drops (sometimes they’re not suitable if your eardrum is damaged or if you have an infection).

What not to do when removing water from your ear

  • Don’t use your finger, cotton buds or anything else to try to remove the water – this could lead to an infection or even damage to your eardrum.
  • Avoid putting anything in your ear without consulting your GP, pharmacist or audiologist first. That includes home remedies like olive oil, water or vinegar.

How to prevent getting water in your ear in the future

There are a few things you can do to reduce your chances of developing swimmer’s ear and limit water getting stuck in the ear. These include things like:

  • Wearing ear plugs designed for swimming to keep any water out of your ear canal
  • If you’re not sure how clean the water is (in lakes and rivers, for example) – steer clear
  • After you’ve been swimming, tip your head to the side to let any excess water out
  • Use a clean towel to dry the outside of your ears after a shower, bath, or swimming
  • Never try to get earwax out yourself with your finger, cotton buds, or hairpins

Find out more about ear plugs for swimming

Risk factors for swimmer’s ear

Swimmer’s ear can happen to anyone, but you might be at a greater risk of developing it if you:

  • Are a regular swimmer
  • Scratch or scrape the ear canal with your finger or with a cotton bud
  • Have an existing skin condition like eczema or psoriasis
  • Have excess earwax, wear hearing aids, or use a swimming cap (this can trap water in the ear)

Swimmer’s ear treatment

Swimmer’s ear drops

Prescription ear drops are the most common treatment for swimmer’s ear. They contain medication that will help to fight the infection and calm down any swelling you have. You’ll probably need to use these a few times a day for a few days, and it’s important that you finish the bottle – even if your ear is feeling better.

Medical treatment for swimmer’s ear

Depending on the extent of your symptoms, your GP might need to clean out your ears, or try a different method in order to properly access the ear for treatment. They’ll also check on the health of your eardrum as this might affect the type of treatment they recommend. Rarely, some people may require a stay in hospital for treatment.

Treating the condition from home

After you’ve started treatment, it’ll usually take a few days for your symptoms to clear. 

But while you’re waiting for treatment to kick in, there are a few things you can do to make your symptoms feel a little better.

This might include taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to manage any pain you have, avoiding using earphones or hearing aids for a few days, and keeping your ear dry and away from anything that could irritate it (like hairspray or shampoo).

When should I consult my GP or audiologist about water in my ear?

If you haven’t had any luck with these tricks and tips or you feel the symptoms of ear infection (itchy ears, redness or swelling in the ear canal, discomfort or pain or muffled hearing), then it’s a good idea to see your GP or audiologist for treatment or advice.

FAQs

How long will it take for swimmer’s ear to go away?

With treatment, swimmer’s ear will usually take around a week to go away.

Will swimmer’s ear go away by itself?

Any type of untreated infection carries a risk of further complications, so it’s always best to see your GP who will be able to advise you on treatment, rather than leaving it.

Why is swimmer’s ear so painful?

Swimmer’s ear is painful as the lining of the ear canal is inflamed and sometimes swollen due to the infection.

Can water stay trapped in your ear?

Yes, if you have a build-up of wax or narrow ear canals, water can get stuck in your ear.

Is it normal for your ear to hurt after swimming?

If you’ve been diving deep underwater your ears might hurt as the pressure equalises, but this should resolve itself once your ears have popped. If your ears are hurting a while after swimming, and they feel like water is trapped in them, then it might be an ear infection.