Is It Middle-Ear Infection or Swimmer’s Ear

Woman experiencing ear pain

While summer is drawing to a close, some of its remnants may still be with us. Those who truly love to swim may merely have switched from outdoor pools to indoor ones. While this will keep you safe from the cold autumn air, it doesn’t keep you safe from a swimmer’s ear infection. Swimmer’s ear is an ear infection that forms in the outer canal of the ear. The most common cause is water remaining in the ear following time spent in the water. The combination of wet with a warm environment is perfect for the formation of bacteria. 

How To Know If It’s A Middle-Ear Infection or Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer’s ear is often mistaken for a middle ear infection, but they aren’t the same thing. A swimmer’s ear infection forms in the exterior portion of the ear, inside the outer canal. A middle-ear infection occurs deeper within the ear and must be treated differently. Thankfully, there are a few clues that can tell you which you’re experiencing.

Identifying The Symptoms Of Swimmer’s Ear Vs. Middle Ear Infection:

  • Determine where the pain source – If you’re experiencing pain near the opening of the ear, or it increases when the earlobe is pulled on, it’s likely a swimmer’s ear infection. Middle ear infections will feel deeper set, closer to the eardrum. The pain usually increases when lying down, and sleep quality can be affected.
  • Look for visible symptoms – The outside of the ear is going to get swollen and may appear to have a rash. The ear may seem very itchy, and you may be tempted to scratch frequently. Swimmer’s ear is also often accompanied by foul-smelling discharge. Middle-ear infections often come with fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and a tendency to pull on the ear.
  • Hearing difficulty – Both types of infection can cause difficulty hearing. However, it’s also a common first symptom that will be noticed.
  • Consider Sources – If you recently spent time in a hot tub, lake, or pool, it’s a sign it may be a swimmer’s ear infection. Take steps to clean your ear with a cotton swab after these activities and after bathing or showering. Removing the water can help eliminate the risk of a swimmer’s ear infection.
  • Respiratory Issues – Middle-Ear infections are often accompanied by upper respiratory concerns, watery eyes, and a runny nose. These symptoms often appear in the days before the infection sets in.

When it comes to treating these conditions, you can start with ibuprofen or acetaminophen. These medications can help reduce pain symptoms. For swimmer’s ear infections, a warm compress placed on the affected ear can also ease the pain. The infection, however, will require the attention of a professional.

How To Reach Out To Your Health Professional

Each of these ear conditions can be diagnosed as part of a telehealth visit or an office visit. In each case, you are likely to be prescribed an antibiotic to help get the infection under control. In some cases, a middle-ear infection may require a physical visit to the office. During this visit, a special tool will be used to identify the location and severity of the concern to determine a proper course of treatment.


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Linda Clark, NP

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