Ear - Swimmer's  
Back to Index

Does this describe your child's symptoms?

  • An infection or irritation of the skin that lines the ear canal
  • Has recently been swimming or gotten lots of water in the ear canals


  • Itchy and somewhat painful ear canal
  • Discomfort when the ear is moved up and down
  • The ear feels plugged or full
  • Discharge may develop as the swimmer’s ear becomes worse


  • When water repeatedly gets trapped in the ear canal, the lining becomes wet and swollen.
  • This makes it prone to a bacterial superficial infection (swimmer's ear).
  • Wax buildup also traps water behind it. Usually, this is caused by cotton swabs.
  • Ear canals were meant to be dry.

Return to School

  • Swimmer's ear is not contagious.  No need to miss any school or child care.

If not, see these topics

When to Call Your Doctor

Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If
  • Your child looks or acts very sick
  • Severe pain
  • Redness and swelling of outer ear
  • Fever over 104° F (40° C) and not improved 2 hours after fever medicine
  • You think your child needs to be seen urgently
Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours (between 9 am and 4 pm) If
  • You think your child needs to be seen, but not urgently
  • Constant ear pain
  • Yellow discharge from ear canal
  • Fever
  • Blocked ear canal
  • Swollen lymph node near ear
  • Cause is uncertain (no swimming)
  • Ear symptoms last over 7 days on treatment
Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If
  • You have other questions or concerns
Parent Care at Home If
  • Swimmer's ear with no complications

  1. White Vinegar Rinses:
    • Rinse the ear canals twice a day with ½ strength white vinegar (dilute it with equal parts warm water).
    • Start by having your child lie down with the affected ear upward.
    • Fill the ear canal.
    • Wait 5 minutes, then remove the vinegar rinse by turning the head to the side and moving the ear. (Exception: ear tubes or hole in eardrum.)
    • Reason: restores the normal acid pH of the ear canal and reduces swelling.
    • Continue until the ear canal returns to normal.
  2. Pain Medicine: Give acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) or ibuprofen for pain relief.
  3. Local Heat: If pain is moderate to severe, apply a heating pad (set on low) or hot water bottle to outer ear for 20 minutes (caution: avoid burns). This will also increase drainage.
  4. Reduce Swimming Times: Try to avoid swimming until symptoms are gone. If on a swim team, it's usually OK to continue. Swimming may slow recovery, but causes no serious harm.
  5. Contagiousness: Swimmer's ear is not contagious.
  6. Expected Course: With treatment, symptoms should be improved in 3 days and resolved in 7 days.
  7. Prevention of Recurrences:
    • Try to keep the ear canals dry.
    • After showers, hair washing, and swimming, help the water run out by turning the head.
    • Avoid cotton swabs. (Reason: Packs in the earwax. The wax buildup then traps water behind it).
    • If swimmer's ear is a repeated problem, rinse the ear canals after swimming with a white vinegar-rubbing alcohol solution (equal parts of each).
  8. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Ear symptoms last over 7 days on treatment
    • Your child becomes worse

And remember, contact your doctor if your child develops any of the "Call Your Doctor" symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Author and Senior Reviewer: Barton D. Schmitt, M.D.

Last Reviewed: 9/15/2011

Last Revised: 8/1/2011

Content Set: Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker

Copyright 1994-2012 Barton D. Schmitt, M.D.