Swimmer’s Ear or Middle Ear Infection: How to Know the Difference

If your child is doing a good amount of swimming this summer and suffering from earaches, it’s often difficult to know whether he/she is is experiencing a middle ear infection or swimmer’s ear.

Symptoms can overlap and it can be confusing to distinguish between the two. We can help you differentiate between swimmer’s ear, or an outer ear infection, and a middle ear infection.

Swimmer’s ear or middle ear infection: how to know the difference?

Middle ear infections are often preceded by a cold or an upper respiratory infection. They can be bacterial or they can be viral.

If you can wiggle the outer ear without pain or discomfort, it is probably not swimmer’s ear.

Swimmer’s ear, on the other hand is a bacterial infection of the outer ear, usually caused when moisture is caught in the ear, and often if you are swimming in lakes or waters with high bacteria counts, such as a community pool or hot tub with high PH levels.
As summer progresses, bacteria multiplies in lakes, so if you are doing a lot of lake swimming, it is not uncommon for you or your child to experience swimmer’s ear.

Swimmer’s ear symptoms:

Mild swimmer’s ear symptoms usually include:

  • itching
  • mild pain from pulling or pushing on the outer ear,
  • a slight redness inside the ear
  • possible discharge of a clear odorless fluid
  • often times the sensation that the ear is clogged.

Moderate swimmer’s ear symptoms can include

  • more intense itching
  • increasing pain
  • more extensive redness and/or pus/drainage
  • occasionally a decrease in hearing

If you are experiencing any of these severe swimmer’s ear symptoms you should visit the ER:

  • swelling of the ear
  • pain extending into the neck
  • a high fever
  • tender lymph nodes
  • loss of hearing in the ear
  • and possibly a thicker discharge with an odor

There are a few precautions you can take to prevent swimmer’s ear:

  • Avoid swimming in waters with high bacteria counts, especially later in the season in the northeast
  • Don’t put any sharp objects deep in to the ear canal, including Q-tips to dry the ear after swimming or bathing, even if there is itching. Ear wax helps protect the ear canal. Best not to remove it
  • No ear plugs, especially for an extended period of time. They are a breeding ground for bacteria!
  • Dry ears thoroughly when coming out of the water. Sometimes tilting your head and hopping up and down helps. And kids love this “game”.

Home remedies for  temporary swimmer’s ear pain relief:

There are a few home remedies that will provide temporary relief for swimmer’s ear

  • 1 part white vinegar and 1 part alcohol to help keep the ear canal clean. Only using this once you are sure that your ear drum is intact and not ruptured.
  • Applying warm, dry heat to the outside of the ear can help soothe the pain. A heating pad set to low or a warm dry towel can provide some relief.
  • Acetaminophen or Ibuprofin to provide temporary relief.

Swimmer’s ear will usually need an antibiotic ear drop to cure it.

If you or a family member is experiencing any of these symptoms feel free to walk in to AFC Urgent Care, West Hartford, located at 1030 Boulevard or call us at (860) 986-6440.

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3700 Cahaba Beach Road Birmingham, AL 35242

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Our mission is to provide the best healthcare possible in a kind and caring environment, in an economical manner, while respecting the rights of all of our patients, at times and locations convenient to the patient.

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