Ear infection? Swimmer’s ear? What you need to know

Time saver 4 min read

Ear aches—they’re so annoying and painful. Your ear itches where you just can't scratch it, you can’t hear well, you feel stuffed up and it’s hard to sleep. Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s going on. Is it an ear infection or could it be swimmer’s ear?

As we move into summer, many of us will be spending more time at the swimming pool or beach and that means we may experience swimmer’s ear. But, what’s the difference between an ear infection and swimmer’s ear? What causes each? What symptoms should you look out for? How can you alleviate symptoms? Don’t worry. We’re here to answer your questions and provide help.

What’s the difference between an ear infection and swimmer’s ear?

An ear infection and swimmer’s ear can feel very similar—pain, itching, redness and discharge. That’s because they are both ear infections, they just affect different parts of the ear. Additionally, the related causes, symptoms and prevention techniques vary for each.

Ear infection symptoms vs. swimmer’s ear symptoms

What are the symptoms of an ear infection?

Ear infections are very common, especially in children. But you can also suffer ear infections as an adult—especially if you have allergies or a cold. Regardless of your age, the telltale symptom of an ear infection is pain in the inner ear, close to the eardrum. Other symptoms can include:

  • Ear pain in one ear
  • Muffled hearing
  • Drainage of fluid from the ear if the eardrum has ruptured

In small children, signs of an ear infection may also include:

  • Fever
  • Tugging or pulling at the ear
  • Fussiness
  • Crying when laying down
  • Loss of appetite

What are the symptoms of swimmer’s ear

While pain with an ear infection usually radiates from deep inside the ear, pain caused by swimmer’s ear occurs in the outer ear. With swimmer’s ear, an affected ear may appear red, swollen and have a rash-like appearance. Other symptoms include:

  • Pain that is worse by pulling on the outer ear
  • Itching
  • Drainage of clear fluid
  • Swelling of the ear canal
  • Difficulty hearing

Common causes for ear infections vs. swimmer’s ear

What causes an ear infection?

An ear infection is most commonly caused by a bacterial or viral infection of the middle ear that may result due to allergies or a cold.

Additional factors that can increase the risk of developing an ear infection, include:

  • Bad air quality — Being exposed to air pollutants like tobacco smoke and smog.
  • Seasonal elements — Rates of ear infections tend to increase during the winter months and when seasonal allergies peak.
  • Child care — Children who are in group daycare settings are more prone to colds and ear infections.

What causes swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear is caused when moisture gets trapped in the ear canal after swimming or even from showering. A combination of excess moisture and bacteria can create a breeding ground for infection.

Additionally, the following can further exacerbate or increase your risk of developing swimmer’s ear:

  • Keep clear of the ear canal – Avoid sticking fingers, cotton swabs or any other foreign object into the ear canal. These objects can cause micro abrasions in the ear canal, introducing bacteria.
  • Don’t remove earwax from your ears — Earwax is your ear’s natural defense against infection and harmful material. If you’re concerned about how much earwax you have, consult your doctor.

What should I do if I think I have an ear infection or swimmer’s ear?

Treatment for ear infections

Many ear infections will clear up on their own. The best treatment for your situation depends on a number of factors, including age and the severity of symptoms. Common treatment for adults includes a combination of over-the-counter medication, self-care tips to manage pain and antibiotics to treat the infection.

For children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends managing symptoms for 48-72 hours and then reassessing to determine if symptoms are improving. In most cases, ear infections in kids resolve on their own. If symptoms don’t improve or worsen, a child may need to be seen in person to determine if antibiotics are needed.

Treatment for swimmer’s ear

If an ear infection was caused by swimming or showering, it’s important to manage pain and treat the infection. Treatment for swimmer’s ear often includes a combination of over-the-counter pain medication, such as Tylenol or Advil. Prescription medicated ear drops are also often necessary to reduce swelling and treat the infection. While an infection heals, it’s important to keep your ear dry.

Ways to prevent future ear infections and swimmer’s ear

How to prevent another ear infection

Once you or your child have had an ear infection you never want to experience another one. Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to reduce the risk of future ear infections:

  • Support your immune system — Everything you do to support your immune system should be taken into consideration for ear infections too. Get enough sleep, drink plenty of fluids and make sure you’re managing stress.
  • Get your flu shot — Flu shots are important each year to protect you and your family against the seasonal flu. The added bonus may also be protection against ear infections from congestion.
  • Get treatment for allergies — Avoid congestion as much as possible to keep risks low. (Bonus: Virtuwell treats allergies online too.)

How to prevent swimmer’s ear

Swimmer’s ear puts a huge damper on summer fun. Prevention is simpler than you think. To ward off swimmer’s ear, follow these few tips:

  • Dry your ears thoroughly — Whether it’s after a swim or shower, make sure to dry your ears thoroughly. Use a towel or simply tip your head to each side while tugging on your ear to dislodge water from the ear canal.
  • Wear ear plugs while swimming — If you’re prone to swimmer’s ear, you may choose to use ear plugs specifically made for swimming. Swim caps can also help.
  • If it’s not made to go in the ear, keep it out — Don’t put anything not meant to sit in the ear canal in your ear. Any unnecessary irritation can increase your risk of infection.
  • Clean ear devices frequently — Think headphones, hearing aids and ear plugs. They should all be cleaned and disinfected frequently to prevent introducing new bacteria to your ears.

Take care of your ears

Hopefully the tips in the post will help you and your little ones avoid future ear troubles. If ear issues do crop up, Virtuwell is here to help you feel better fast — so you can get back to having fun in the sun and a restful night’s sleep.

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