Swimmer’s ear is an outer ear infection (also called otitis externa) that’s commonly caused by moisture. When water remains in the ear (such as after swimming), it can establish a damp environment that supports bacterial growth.

Swimmer’s ear is typically treated with prescription ear drops. The most commonly prescribed drops combine a corticosteroid to calm inflammation with either an antibiotic or acetic acid.

If the infection is caused by a fungus, your doctor can prescribe antifungal ear drops as opposed to antibiotic ear drops.

Typical treatment usually involves placing ear drops 3 or 4 times each day for 5 days. Application instructions will vary depending on the prescription and you should follow your doctor’s specific recommendations.

With prescription ear drops, your symptoms typically improve within 24 hours and are gone in two or three days.

OTC (over-the-counter) ear drops, commonly containing isopropyl alcohol and glycerin, often focus on helping the ear dry out quicker as opposed to fighting the infection.

OTC pain medication

If your discomfort level is high, your doctor might recommend OTC pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or naproxen (Aleve) to address any discomfort your swimmer’s ear might be causing.

These would be to lessen the symptoms of pain, not cure the problem itself.

According to experts, prescription ear drops containing antibiotics or steroids are more effective for otitis externa than OTC disinfectant ear drops. There’s lacking evidence that OTC ear drops will effectively treat swimmer’s ear.

To prevent yourself from getting swimmer’s ear, or once you’ve started prescription ear drops, the key is to keep your ears as dry as possible.

To do this:

  • When swimming, use a swim cap that covers your ears.
  • Towel your head, hair, and ears dry after swimming.
  • Use soft earplugs when bathing or showering.
  • When using products, such as hair dye and hair spray, put cotton balls (or other ear canal protection) in your ears.

Protecting ear canal skin

Avoid damaging the thin layer of skin that lines the ear canal by being careful with:

  • scratching
  • headphones
  • cotton swabs

If the skin is scratched, it’s open for infection.

Preventive treatment

Some suggest mixing 1 part white vinegar with 1 part rubbing alcohol to assist drying and halt bacterial and fungal growth.

The recommended dosage is pouring 1 teaspoon of the mixture into each ear and then letting it drain back out.

It’s believed that the alcohol combines with excess water in the ear canal, removing it when it evaporates. The acidity of the vinegar discourages the growth of bacteria.

This mixture is similar in both ingredients and function to many of the available OTC swimmer’s ear drops.

Typically mild, the symptoms of swimmer’s ear can worsen if the infection isn’t treated.

Symptoms may include:

  • redness
  • itching
  • warmth
  • fluid drainage (odorless and clear)
  • discomfort (intensified when the area near the ear canal is touched)
  • muffled hearing

If you have one or all of these symptoms, call your doctor. If you also have severe pain or develop a fever, seek immediate medical help.

If you have a condition that makes you more susceptible to infections, such as diabetes, you could develop a severe form of swimmer’s ear known as malignant otitis externa.

Malignant otitis externa requires immediate hospitalization for intravenous antibiotics. If you know you have higher risk and develop swimmer’s ear symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.

Your doctor will have some suggestions for the best method for getting ear drops into your ear.

Some techniques include:

  • Lie down. Lie on your side with your infected ear aimed toward the ceiling. This can help the drops reach your ear canal’s full length.
  • Warm the drops. Holding the bottle for a few minutes in your closed hand can get the drops near body temperature, reducing any discomfort from cold drops.
  • Ask for help. Since they can see your ear, somebody else should be able to put the drops in your ear with greater ease and precision.

Swimmer’s ear can be an uncomfortable infection. The sooner it’s treated, the less likely there will be complications.

Prescription swimmer’s ear drops are the preferred method for treating the infection. See your doctor if you have swimmer’s ear symptoms such as:

  • discomfort
  • redness
  • itching
  • muffled hearing

Over-the-counter (OTC) and homemade drops can be part of a prevention program that includes other ways of keeping water out of your ears, such as earplugs and swim caps.