Four ways to tell swimmer’s ear from an ear infection

It’s summer, and the land of 10,000 lakes is a great place to swim and play. As your family enjoys the pools and lakes, make sure you know the difference between swimmer’s ear and a middle ear infection.

Is it swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear is an infection in the outer ear canal. It’s often brought on by water in the ear that remains after swimming, creating a moist environment where bacteria can grow.

While it can affect anyone, swimmer’s ear is most common in children (because they have narrower ear canals) and during the summer months (because of the increased use of swimming pools and lakes).

Swimmer’s ear is not the same as a middle ear infection, which occurs behind the eardrum and is most often caused by a viral infection.

Get to know the symptoms

This short quiz will help you identify symptoms and learn what they mean.

Spot the symptoms of swimmer’s ear or a middle ear infection.

Determine where the pain is

With swimmer’s ear, the pain is located in the parts of the ear you can see and increases when you pull on the earlobe. In a middle ear infection, pain is located in the inner ear and will often increase when lying down, which can cause trouble sleeping.

Swimmer’s Ear

Look for visible symptoms

If your child is experiencing ear pain, these signals are especially helpful: with swimmer’s ear, the outer ear may appear red and swollen and have a rash-like appearance. You may see your child frequently scratch at their ear or complain of an itchy ear. Also watch for foul-smelling drainage coming from the ear(s) that bother them. Symptoms to watch for with a middle ear infection include fever, pulling or tugging on the ear, decreased appetite, diarrhea or vomiting.

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Check for difficulty hearing

Temporary hearing loss is a telltale sign for both a middle ear infection and swimmer’s ear, and it may be one of the first signs you notice.

Consider contributing factors

Did the ear pain start after a recent swim in a lake, pool or hot tub? Despite its name, you don’t have to swim to pick up swimmer’s ear. Simply cleaning your ears with a cotton swab or taking a shower or bath can also cause this condition. With a middle ear infection, you or your child may exhibit signs of an upper respiratory infection, such as congestion, runny nose and watery eyes, in the days before the inner ear pain began.

Photo of a doctor examining a patient’s ear

How to treat ear pain

It’s OK to take an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen or Tylenol to help relieve the pain associated with swimmer’s ear or other types of ear infections. A warm compress placed over the affected ear can also relieve the pain from swimmer’s ear. You should consult with an expert to treat the cause of the infection. If you need more than temporary relief, here are some other options.

For swimmer’s ear

Swimmer’s ear can usually be treated in children and adults with an online visit, like Allina Health Everyday Online. This is especially convenient if symptoms start while you’re away from home, after clinic hours or over the weekend since most online clinics have 24-hour access. Whether you’re seen online or in person, your provider will likely prescribe antibiotic ear drops to treat swimmer’s ear.

For middle ear infections

With a middle ear infection, it’s best to have a provider examine your ear with an otoscope to look for signs of infection or blockages. For this reason you should be seen in person at urgent care, a convenient care or walk-in clinic, or your primary care clinic. If your provider believes that bacteria may have caused the infection, she’ll prescribe an antibiotic. However, if a virus is causing the infection, an antibiotic won’t help, and you’ll have to wait for the infection to get better on its own.