The swimmer’s ear

Your child, the little fish, oozes out of the water with a throbbing pain in their ear. They probably developed swimmer’s ear and it should be treated immediately. It could also be prevented!

Its name clearly evokes its origins: the swimmer’s ear occurs when swimming. While otitis media is the inflammation of a bone structure located in the middle ear, behind the eardrum, otitis externa, known as swimmer’s ear, is an inflammation of the ear canal. 

Children are more prone to swimmer’s ear but mostly because they wade in pools in greater numbers than adults, said Dr. Yannick Larivee, otolaryngologist (ENT) and President of the Association of Oto-rhino-Laryngology and maxilla-facial surgery of Quebec. 

Poorly maintained swimming pools, where the water quality is fair or poor, are the main culprits. The germs they contain can infect the ear canal and cause an inflammation. 

This breeding ground for germs will be even more fertile if the ear contains too much wax, turning it into a moist environment, ideal for bacteria. “People who already have eczema in their ear are predisposed to swimmer’s ear”, adds Dr. Larivee. 

The symptoms

  • The first symptom of otitis externa is a rather intense and constant pain in the ear. It usually occurs two or three days after swimming. Some people feel pain in their hypersensitive pinna because it is attached to their sore ear canal
  • A discharge generally flows out of the infected ear and hearing may be impaired. 
  • The infection gets worse when it spreads to the pinna and ganglion, sometimes even to the eardrum. 
  • The ultimate diagnosis, total deafness, can happen only if we unduly delay or plainly fail to treat the infection. “A child who had ear pain for more than three days should be seen by a doctor”, says Dr. Larivee.


The antibiotic drops that stop the infection and clean the ear are the main and most efficient treatment against swimmer’s ear. The treatment lasts between five and seven days. 

The doctor may also perform an elaborate cleaning of the ear to maximize the effectiveness of the treatment. General practitioners, however, are not usually equipped to perform this ENT operation.

Some doctors and specialists also prescribe anti-inflammatory medication to ease the pain.


Good will doesn’t always compensate for what we don’t know and it can be difficult to completely rule out public pools, even if they can be a source of outbreak. So when we consider prevention, it is safer to bet on the “after swim”: 

  • By drying the ear conduct with a hair dryer, because where there is no moisture, the bacteria don’t survive; 
  • By putting a drop of mineral oil in each ear before and after the swim; 
  • By cleaning the ear conduct with a drop of vinegar diluted in water.  

These two last recommendations, as well as the use of antiseptic ear drops such as Polysporin, are especially relevant for people who are prone to ear infections.

Prevention remains the best weapon against those pool-loving enemies says Dr. Larivee. “Ear infections are not more or less frequent over the years but the incidence of this type of infections doesn’t decrease either” It is not understood enough yet but prevention is the key to success…”  

So bring your hairdryer to the public pool with your little baby fishes, even if you don’t intend to do your hair!

Image de Josée Descôteaux

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