Otitis externa, also known as swimmer’s ear, is an infection of the ear canal, running from the outside of the head to the eardrum itself. It develops when water remains in the ear after swimming, which can create an environment conducive to the growth of fungi and bacteria.1 Otitis externa can cause a variety of symptoms, including mild pain in the ear and redness of the outer ear.2 There are several treatment options available, so learn more about this condition below.

What Causes Outer Ear Infections

So, what causes outer ear infections? There are different types of ear infections. Outer ear infections are infections of the outer ear which includes the ear lobe, the ear canal, and the eardrum.3 In contrast, otitis media, which is an infection of the middle ear, takes place behind the eardrum. Ear infections can be caused by bacteria, viruses, and fungi. A few important points to keep in mind regarding the causes of outer ear infections include: 3

  • The vast majority of outer ear infections are caused by bacteria. Otitis externa (also known as swimmer's ear) is a bacterial infection typically caused by water that stayed in the outer ear canal for a long period of time, which can create a moist environment that allows bacteria to thrive. These organisms thrive in warm, wet environments,4 and a moist ear canal could be the perfect location for them to do so. 5
  • Fungi, such as yeast, can also cause outer ear infections, but they are much less common.
  • Certain types of viruses, including the flu and the shingles virus (zoster oticus), can cause an outer ear infection occasionally.
  • In rare cases, an allergic reaction can also cause an outer ear infection. Cosmetic products, such as shampoo, are usually the culprits.

Outer Ear Infection Symptoms in Adults

Even though a lot of people associate ear infections with children, it is also possible for adults to get them as well. What does an ear infection feel like? The symptoms of otitis externa are generally mild at first, but they can get worse over time. 6 Some of the first symptoms you may notice include: 7

  • The ear canal might feel a bit itchy.
  • You may notice some colorless fluid draining from the ear.
  • There might be some mild discomfort that is made worse when you move the ear or pull on it.
  • If you can see inside your ear, there may be some mild redness.
    If the infection is not dealt with quickly, it can get worse over time. Some of the moderate symptoms you might notice include: 7
  • The itching will generally get worse.
  • You may have worsening pain in the ear, particularly if you move it.
  • You may feel like you cannot hear very well out of that ear.
  • You might feel like there is fluid inside your ear that continues to build.
    You may want to reach out to a medical expert who can help you address the symptoms before they get more severe.

How long do ear infections last?

The exact length of the infection will depend on the severity and the treatment option used. It is not unusual for ear infections to clear up in approximately three days; however, it is not unusual for some symptoms to last more than a week.8

If you feel like the infection is getting worse, or if you do not feel well enough to complete your daily routine, you should reach out to a medical professional who can help you. It is possible that you might require some antibiotics to clear up the infection, but there are plenty of treatment options available.

Treating Otitis Externa/Swimmer’s Ear

There are some at-home remedies that can help improve the symptoms of an ear infection.:

You can apply a warm compress to the affected ear to help to reduce the pain. Dip a clean cloth in warm water, squeeze out the excess water, and hold it against the affected ear for 10-15 minutes.9,2

You may also want to use some antibiotic drops. Remember that an ear infection is caused by bacteria, so antibiotics might be required to kill the bacteria in your ear. You may want to use POLYSPORIN® Plus Pain Relief Ear Drops. These antibiotic ear drops treat infections of the external ear, such as swimmer's ear, and relieve the pain of associated earaches fast.10Before you turn to home remedies for ear infections, you need to consult your local doctor to discuss the treatment options.


There are several tips you should follow to prevent an ear infection from developing. They include:

  • If the lake or river has a high bacteria count, do not go swimming that day.7
  • Consider using a swimming cap to protect your ears from water.2
  • Do not put objects, including cotton swabs, in the ear canal.2
  • Ensure you keep your ears clean and dry. If you get water in your ears, try to dry them safely. A dry environment is much harder for bacteria to grow in.7
  • Always wash your hands. If you wash your hands, you reduce your chances of moving bacteria from your fingers to your ears.7

When to see a doctor

It is not unusual for ear infections to go away on their own after a few days or a week;5 however, if you feel like your symptoms are not getting better, you should visit the doctor. Some of the warning signs that indicate you should see a doctor as quickly as possible include:

  • You’re receiving treatment for a bacterial or fungal infection, and it hasn’t gone away 10 to 14 days after you started treatment. .5
  • That ear canal might be completely blocked, making it nearly impossible to hear out of it.5
  • You might develop a fever.3
  • The pain in your ear is getting worse.5
  • You notice fluid coming from the ear.5

There are antibiotic drops available to help you clear up ear infections, but don't hesitate to reach out to your local doctor for more information. That way, you can ensure that you are exploring all options available to help treat your ear infection. The faster you start the treatment process, the lower your chances of developing complications. Starting the treatment process early can help prevent further complications.


1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556055/

2. https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/swimmers/rwi/ear-infections.html

3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279353/#:~:text=Outer%20ear%20infe...

4. https://www.fdacs.gov/Consumer-Resources/Health-and-Safety/Food-Safety-F...


6. https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/ear-infections

7. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/swimmers-ear/symptoms-cau...

8. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/swimmers-ear

9. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/3-home-remedies-for-an-ear-infection/