Swimmer’s Ear or Ear Infection: What’s the Difference?

Published: June 05, 2023
Autumn Pinard
By Autumn Pinard, PharmD, MBA

Do you or your kiddo’s ears hurt? It could be an ear infection, or it could be swimmer's ear. Both are common, especially for kids during the summer. Swimmer's ear happens when water stays in your ear making it a good place for bacteria or fungus to grow.


How can I tell the difference?
First, identify where the pain is. Pain when pulling on the earlobe is a sign of swimmer’s ear. Pain that increases when lying down is a sign of an ear infection.

The symptoms of swimmer’s ear and an ear infection are also different. The symptoms of swimmer’s ear include redness, swelling, itching, and smelly drainage in the outer ear. Symptoms of an ear infection include fever, difficulty sleeping, or tugging on the ear.

The timing of symptoms can also help you figure out the difference. Recent swimming in a lake or pool suggests swimmer’s ear. A recent cold or upper respiratory infection suggests an ear infection.

How is swimmer’s ear treated?
If you have pain or drainage from the ear, it's important to contact your healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment. Over-the-counter ear drops can help the ear dry out quicker, but do not fight infection. Depending on the cause and severity of the condition, your healthcare provider may prescribe ear drops containing antibiotics or antifungal medication to treat the infection and steroids to reduce swelling and itching. Pain can be relieved with warm compresses or over-the-counter pain relievers.

How can I prevent swimmer’s ear?
Here are some pharmacist’s tips for preventing swimmer’s ear:

  • Keep ears as dry as possible
  • Dry ears thoroughly after swimming or showering
  • DO NOT put objects, such as cotton-tip swabs, in the ear canal
  • DO NOT try to remove ear wax; it protects the ear canal from infections

Tips from a pharmacist for using ear drops

  • Reduce discomfort by bringing the drops to room temperature
  • Help the medication reach the entire ear canal by lying on your side with your infected ear pointed up toward the ceiling
  • For children, gently pull the ear down and back
  • For adults, gently pull the ear up and back

Swimmer's ear is an outer ear canal infection commonly seen in children and often occurs during the summer months. Swimming in lakes, pools, or other bodies of water are often associated with swimmer's ear. It is important to take preventive measures such as keeping the ears dry and avoiding the use of objects in the ear canal to reduce the risk of developing this condition.

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