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To get rid of swimmer's ear you will likely need to see a doctor who will write you a prescription for antibiotics.
If you are prone to frequent swimmer's ear infections, you can speak with your doctor about whether a home remedy of combining rubbing alcohol and vinegar is a possible treatment option.
Swimmer's ear is a bacterial infection that is uncomfortable but doesn't usually cause permanent damage.
Swimmer's ear is the colloquial name for acute otitis externa, an infection of the outer ear. Though the nickname implies that you get the infection from swimming, you can contract swimmer's ear without ever setting foot (or ear) in water.
According to the CDC, swimmer's ear results in roughly 2.4 million doctor visits each year in the US. The condition rarely causes lasting damage, but it can be very uncomfortable. Here's how to get rid of swimmer's ear and avoid it in the future.
What is swimmer's ear?
Swimmer's ear is an infection of the outer ear canal. It's "often precipitated or caused by moisture in the ears," says Emily Boss, MD, associate professor of otolaryngology, pediatrics, and health policy & management at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
That's why swimming is one of the primary causes of swimmer's ear because, "when water or precipitation hangs out in that ear canal, you can get an infection," says Boss.
An estimated 98% of cases of swimmer's ear in the US are caused by bacteria. And approximately 33% of those infections are due to multiple kinds of bacteria, not just one. The usual suspects include Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
But swimming isn't the only way moisture can get trapped in the ears. "You can also get it from headphones. You can get it from living in a humid environment. You can get it from wearing hearing aids," Boss says.
How to know if you have swimmer's ear
People with swimmer's ear "will have pain when they touch the outer ear, or when they touch that little flap of cartilage that is over the ear canal called the tragus," says Boss.
Itchiness of the outer ear and the presence of discharge and drainage are also common symptoms.
Swimmer's ear is often treated with antibiotics
To treat swimmer's ear, doctors will often prescribe antibiotics in the form of a "topical treatment, like drops and ointments," Boss says. "We try to avoid any oral or IV antibiotics; those are reserved for when people have middle ear infections," or if the infection has spread to the surrounding tissues.
Antibiotic ear drops help to clear up any infection, and steroid drops reduce painful inflammation. They also restore the ear canal's healthy pH levels, which harmful bacteria can throw off. Two common types of antibiotic drops for swimmer's ear are Ofloxacin and Cortisporin, says Boss.
Here's a 5-step guide for how to administer ear drops correctly:
Warm the medicine bottle by holding it or rolling it between your palms.
Using freshly washed hands, you must remove any excess debris that could obscure the ear canal — a cotton ball is a good tool for doing this.
Administer the medicine by lying on your side and pulling on the earlobe to create a straighter passage down the canal to the eardrum.
Press on the bottle to push out the drops.
Stay lying on your side for five minutes to prevent the medicine from leaking out.
A typical dose is ten drops twice a day for two weeks.
Under extreme circumstances when the ear canal has swollen shut and drops cannot be administered normally, a doctor will craft a wick to help gain access to the infection and administer treatment.
Boss likens an ear wick to "a little syringe or a tampon that gets inserted into the ear canal, then filled with medicinal drops. [When] it expands, it allows the entire area to be treated all the way to the eardrum."
When you're treating swimmer's ear, you should avoid swimming or otherwise submerging your ear in water. Boss says you should also avoid touching the ear or the area around it and stop using earbuds — particularly if you live in a hot climate and are prone to sweating.
Try home remedies for repeat infections
Most cases of swimmer's ear are treated with antibiotics. However, if you're prone to swimmer's ear and experience repeat infections frequently, you may not need a prescription every time you get an infection.
For repeat infections, the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics says you can try mixing a solution of half rubbing alcohol and half vinegar.
"Take white vinegar, mix it with rubbing alcohol, or just do vinegar on its own and put a little bit in the ear," Boss says. Once you have the solution ready, Boss says to wet a cotton ball, gently place it over the ear canal, and then massage it around. You may also try to drop it carefully into your ear.
Since cases of acute otitis externa are usually treated with prescription antibiotics, you should discuss with your doctor whether home remedies are right for you. And if, at any point, your earache is accompanied by fever, or the pain is unbearable, you should schedule a doctor's visit right away.
How to prevent swimmer's ear
The safest way to prevent swimmer's ear is to keep your ears relatively dry and moisture-free.
When possible, opt to swim in a chlorinated pool over a lake to reduce the risk of exposure to bacteria. Also, clean and disinfect your earbuds regularly, and let them dry before using, again.
Above all else, don't insert anything like cotton swabs or bobby pins into your ears, even under the premise of removing ear wax. Ear wax is one of the body's natural mechanisms for protecting the ear and should be left alone. For more information, check out Insider's guide on how to remove stubborn earwax.
The bottom line
Without proper treatment, even a mild case of swimmer's ear may result in a prolonged infection and resulting discomfort. In rare cases, you could suffer more serious side effects like:
Temporary hearing loss is possible
Bone and cartilage damage, as well as the
Infection spreading to other parts of your body
Swimmer's ear is typically treated with prescription antibiotics. However, if you spend a lot of time in the water or in warm, moist environments you may be prone to repeat infections. If this is the case, ask your doctor if a home remedy is an acceptable method of treatment.
More importantly, take steps to prevent infection in the first place by drying your ears and disinfecting your earbuds regularly.
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