External Ear Infection (Adult)

Basic ear anatomy with labels for external ear, middle ear, inner ear, ear canal, eardrum, and eustachian tube.

External otitis (also called “swimmer’s ear”) is an infection in the ear canal. It's often caused by bacteria or fungus. It can occur a few days after water gets trapped in the ear canal (from swimming or bathing). It can also occur after cleaning too deeply in the ear canal with a cotton swab or other object. Sometimes, hair care products get into the ear canal and cause this problem.

Symptoms can include pain, fever, itching, redness, drainage, or swelling of the ear canal. Temporary hearing loss may also occur.

Home care

  • Don't try to clean the ear canal. This can push pus and bacteria deeper into the canal.

  • Use prescribed ear drops as directed. These help reduce swelling and fight the infection. If an ear wick was placed in the ear canal, apply drops right onto the end of the wick. The wick will draw the medicine into the ear canal even if it's swollen closed.

  • A cotton ball may be loosely placed in the outer ear to absorb any drainage.

  • You may use over-the-counter medicines to control pain as directed by the healthcare provider, unless another medicine was prescribed. Talk with your provider before using these medicines if you have chronic liver or kidney disease or ever had a stomach ulcer or digestive tract bleeding.

  • Don't allow water to get into your ear when bathing. Also don't swim until the infection has cleared.


  • Keep your ears dry. This helps lower the risk of infection. Dry your ears with a towel or hair dryer after getting wet. Also, use ear plugs when swimming.

  • Don't stick any objects in the ear to remove wax.

  • Talk with your provider about using ear drops to prevent swimmer's ear in case you feel water trapped in your ear canal. You can get these drops over the counter at most drugstores. They work by removing water from the ear canal.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider in 1 week, or as advised.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Ear pain becomes worse or doesn’t improve after 3 days of treatment

  • Redness or swelling of the outer ear occurs or gets worse

  • Headache

  • Fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

Call 911

Call 911 or get immediate medical care if any of the following occur:

  • Seizure

  • Unusual drowsiness or confusion

  • Unusual painful or stiff neck

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