Do I Have An Ear Infection or Swimmer’s Ear? Understanding the Differences

Young Boy Making sure his earplugs are in while playing in the pool

The arrival of summer means swimming pools, hot springs, and other fun water activities. Unfortunately, it often means a rise in cases of swimmer’s ear, a common ailment during the summer months.

If you think you or your child might have an ear infection or swimmer’s ear, it will be helpful to understand the differences between the two. Following is information on both conditions that will help you to recognize them. We also offer up solutions for what to do about each.

Ear Infection or Swimmer’s Ear

Although the symptoms of ear infections and swimmer’s ear may seem similar on the surface, the causes behind the conditions are different.

Ear infections are actually infections of the middle ear, usually preceded by a cold or allergy attack that blocks the Eustachian tube. This results in fluid being trapped behind the eardrum. This may cause fever and other symptoms.

Swimmer’s ear, on the other hand, occurs when water from an outside source gets trapped in the ear and the ear gets infected due to moisture. The water can come from a pool, lake, ocean or any external source.

Symptoms to Distinguish

While it may sometimes be necessary to see an ENT doctor to determine whether or not a patient has swimmer’s ear, there are a few ways to distinguish one from the other:

  • Feeling pain in the ear when pulling or touching the outer ear is usually a sign of swimmer’s ear.
  • Some mild drainage or discharge from the ear is also a common sign of swimmer’s ear.
  • Hearing loss is usually worse with a middle ear infection because of the fluid behind the eardrum [although discharge from swimmer’s ear may also cause hearing loss]
  • Redness and swelling are a common sign of both conditions. It is possible to have an ear infection and swimmer’s ear simultaneously.

Read more: Reasons Your Baby Might Get an Ear Infection

Treatment of Swimmer’s Ear

Fortunately, swimmer’s ear is usually easy to diagnose and simple to treat. The condition is quite obvious when an ENT doctor looks in the ear and makes an otoscopic examination.

Swimmer’s ear can be treated with ear drops. If you suspect you or your child may be prone to swimmer’s ear, over-the-counter ear drops may be enough to treat mild itching and irritation. If there is more severe pain prescription antibiotic ear drops may be needed to treat Swimmer’s ear. In these cases, you should make an appointment with a doctor. In some cases, ear wicks may be needed for two to three days to help the ear drops take full effect.

In cases of ear infections, ear drops will not work. For these infections, oral medication is required. Sometimes decongestants, steroids, and nasal sprays are also necessary to open up the Eustachian tube and help fluid clear on its own, but oral medication is the key treatment.

If you think you or your child may have swimmer’s ear or an ear infection, make an appointment with your ENT or primary care doctor to discuss your care options.