Swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, is a bacterial infection typically caused by water in the outer ear canal that stays in your ear after swimming.
Anyone can get swimmer’s ear, but it is most common in children. You can also get swimmer’s ear by putting fingers, cotton swabs, and other objects in your ears, or getting a minor scratch or injury to your ear canal.
Swimmer’s ear is most commonly treated with antibiotic and anti-inflammatory drops. There are also home remedies that can help to soothe your symptoms or prevent further infections.
In this article, I’ll describe the different types of home remedies for swimmer’s ear, and explain whether they’re safe.
I’ll also discuss when you should reach out to your healthcare provider or pediatrician for care.
Hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide are common ingredients in over-the-counter (OTC) ear drops used to soften earwax to make it easier to remove.
Putting hydrogen or carbamide peroxide into your ear can be dangerous if you use too much, and can further damage your ears if you already have an ear infection or injury to the ear canal.
But hydrogen or carbamide peroxide can be safe preventative measures for swimmer’s ear.
Rinsing your ears with a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution or with carbamide peroxide ear drops (Debrox) can help remove wax that can trap water in your ear.
To use, put about a half of an ear dropper of the solution into your ear. Wait until you hear the solution bubble and fizz inside your ear. Then turn your head to the side and pull on the top of your ear to encourage your ear to drain.
Before using hydrogen or carbamide peroxide or ear drops that contain these, be sure to check with your healthcare provider or ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist to make sure it’s safe for your specific condition.
Avoid using this while you have an active outer ear infection.
Though garlic does have antibacterial properties, it has not been shown to work to kill bacteria within the ear.
Inserting any foreign object like food or oils into the ear canal may be irritating or increase the risk for infection.
There aren’t enough studies to show that putting garlic or garlic oil into your ear is safe or works to treat ear infections and this is not a recommended remedy.
However, studies have not specifically measured the safety or effectiveness of using vinegar to treat or prevent ear infections.
As such, avoid putting any foods, oils, or vinegars into your ears without speaking to a provider first.
There isn’t enough evidence to prove the effectiveness of using basil oil to treat an ear infection.
One study from 2005 showed that basil oil helped treat acute otitis media (inner ear infection) in 56-81% of rats when compared to a placebo.
But the study did not compare the results of basil oil to the use of antibiotics or other evidence-based treatments, and rats have very different ears than humans.
In addition, this was only tested for inner-ear infections in rodents. Human inner-ear infections often require oral antibiotics, and should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.
In general, the use of any foods, herbs, or oils in the ear canal has not been shown to be safe or helpful, and can potentially cause irritation.
A hot compress can help to soothe the pain associated with swimmer’s ear. You can wrap a heat pack in a soft towel before applying it to the affected ear.
Make sure to use a pack that’s not too hot to avoid discomfort or burns.
Keep Ears Dry
Keeping your ears as dry as possible during and after swimming can help prevent swimmer’s ear.
Some methods to help keep your ears dry when swimming include using a shower cap over your head or putting a vaseline-coated cotton ball in each ear before swimming (be careful not to insert the ball too far into the ear).
You can also try using specific ear plugs made for swimming, especially if you spend a lot of time in the water. After swimming, use a clean, dry towel to dry your ears thoroughly.
When using reusable ear plugs, thoroughly clean them between uses. Over-the-counter drying ear drops are available for specific use after swimming, or when water is in the ear.
Rubbing Alcohol and Vinegar Mix
A homemade solution of rubbing alcohol and vinegar may be used as a preventative method to help to prevent bacteria from growing inside the ear.
The solution can be made by mixing one drop of vinegar and one drop of isopropyl or rubbing alcohol.
Put one drop of the solution into each ear after bathing or swimming to prevent bacterial growth in the ear.
Be sure to check with your provider before trying this preventative method, especially if you’re unsure if you have a punctured eardrum.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
Some ear infections may require antibiotics. If this is your first time experiencing symptoms, or if your symptoms persist for several days or are severe, reach out to your healthcare provider, otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist, or ENT), or pediatrician (if your child is experiencing symptoms).
It can be difficult to tell the difference between inner and outer ear infections.
So if you are not sure your symptoms are due to swimmer’s ear, if you are having severe ear pain, or if you are having any additional symptoms, it is best to get an ear exam before trying home remedies.
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Frequently Asked Questions
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Antifungal Activity of Apple Cider Vinegar on Candida Species Involved in Denture Stomatitis. (2014). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25219289/
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Effective Treatment of Experimental Acute Otitis Media by Application of Volatile Fluids into the Ear Canal. (2005). https://academic.oup.com/jid/article/191/11/1876/2191818
The antibacterial activity and stability of acetic acid. (2013). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195670113001849
The effect of hydrogen peroxide applied to the middle ear on inner ear function. (2003). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14603071/
Swimming and Ear Infections. (2020). https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/swimmers/rwi/ear-infections.html