Swimmer’s Ear (Otitis Externa) Care Plan

By David Morley, MD
Medically reviewed
August 17, 2021

What is Otitis Externa?

Otitis externa, or outer ear infection, is an infection of the external auditory canal, the tube leading to the eardrum. The infection occurs when the skin of this canal cracks and bacteria are able to enter. This condition is also commonly called ‘swimmer’s ear’ since swimming can be a cause. Use of earbuds or cleaning too vigorously with cue-tips can also damage the ear canal. Pain and swelling can become significant.

Diagnosis is made by looking at the canal for inflammation, swelling, and other signs of infection. If pulling on the top part of the ear or pressing on the notch at the front of the ear called the tragus causes pain, these can also be signs of an outer ear infection.

Read more about ear infections

Next steps…

To properly apply the medication: 

  • Wash your hands with water and soap (if there’s no water nearby, use hand sanitizer).
  • Tilt your head to the side toward the opposite shoulder so that the infected ear faces upward.
  • Gently pull the upper part of your outer ear backwards and upwards. 
  • Squeeze the correct number of drops into your ear canal. The medication should adequately coat your entire ear canal. 
  • Lie on your side for 3 to 5 minutes OR place a cotton ball in the ear canal for 20 minutes to maximize medicine absorption.

See a doctor in person if…

  • You’re unable to get the ear drops into your ear
  • You develop pain in the back of your head or face or jaw
  • Your pain worsens despite treatment
  • You have persistent fever
  • You experience sudden hearing loss
  • You have chronic ear infections or a history of ruptured eardrum

Check-in with K Health if…

You’re not feeling better within 3-4 days, come back and we will re-evaluate your treatment plan.

What is an outer ear infection?

An outer ear infection, also known as ‘swimmer’s ear’, is most commonly caused by water or moisture that stays in the ear after swimming and promotes bacterial growth. It can also be caused by cotton swabs, fingers, or other objects in your ear. Outer ear infections are less commonly caused by a virus.

Read more about ear infections

Over-the-counter medication

  • Experiencing pain or fever? Take 400mg of ibuprofen or 650mg of acetaminophen every 6 hours with food, as needed.

Prevention tips

  • Protect your ear from moisture by gently wiping the outer part of the ear dry with a soft cloth towel after showering or swimming.
  • Do not put anything in your ear except the ear drops I’ve recommended.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

David Morley, MD

Dr. Morley specializes in emergency medicine and received his medical degree from the Sackler School of Medicine in New York City. He completed his residency at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.