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Infections in the ear canal (otitis externa or swimmer's ear)

ear; ears; otitis; externa; external; canal; swimmer's; swimmers; water; swimming; pain; discharge; smell;


Infections in the ear canal can happen when the lining of the canal is damp such as after spending a lot of time swimming or if it is scratched when something like a cotton bud is poked into the ear canal.

The most common symptom is earache.


Causes of infections in the ear canal

  • If water stays in the ear canal, it washes away the protective coating of wax and the skin becomes soggy, making it easy for bacteria or a fungus to cause an infection.
    • This type of infection often happens when children spend a lot of time swimming (especially in dirty water).
    • Water can get into the ear at other times, such as when a child's hair is washed or during a bath, but this is rarely a problem. 
  • The ear canal of young children is quite narrow, and water can be trapped in a child's ear canal more often than it is in an adult's. Some children have even narrower ear canals than other children, and are much more likely to have these ear canal infections than most children.
  • The lining of the ear canal can also become soggy and infected in some people who live in very damp, tropical places.
  • Infections can also happen if the skin lining the ear canal is scratched. This can happen when something such as a fingernail, cotton bud, paper clip or other object is poked into the ear.
  • Some people have a reaction to some sprays, such as hair spray, causing the skin to swell and be more likely to become infected.

Signs and symptoms of infections in the ear canal

  • The most common symptom is earache. The pain can be mild or quite severe. It may be made worse by touching or moving the ear, or chewing. If the infection becomes bad, the pain can spread into the face and neck.
  • Sometimes the ear becomes very itchy.
  • Swelling of the skin in the ear canal can make the ear canal feel full and blocked.
  • There may be a discharge, which often starts out being clear, then becomes cloudy and yellow (sometimes greenish). This discharge usually has a bad smell.
  • If the ear canal becomes blocked, the child's hearing may be affected.
  • Usually the child isn't sick, and does not have a fever.
  • Rarely the infection spreads into the skin and bone around the ear. The pain gets worse, there will be swelling around the ear, and the child will become unwell.


  • If you think your child has an infection in the ear canal, it would be a good idea to have her ears checked by a doctor.
    • Your doctor will be able to look inside the ear canal, see if the ear canal needs cleaning, and prescribe drops or antibiotics for the infection if needed. Eardrops often need to be used several times a day for about a week, or longer if the infection keeps coming back.
    • Cleaning the ear canal should only be done by a doctor, who can see inside clearly and use special instruments to do the cleaning.
    • Your doctor may need to place a cotton wick into the ear canal to help carry the drops to the infected area.
  • The pain can be bad.
    • You could give her paracetamol or ibuprofen (see the topic Using paracetamol or ibuprofen).
    • A heat pack over the ear can also be soothing. But be very careful that it is not too hot, as that can cause burns. Make sure that it feels comfortable on your arm before you put over your child's ear.
  • Keep water out of her ears. She may need to stop swimming, or use earplugs and a swimming cap. Also use earplugs or a shower cap when she is having a bath or a shower.

Preventing infection

The most important thing is to make sure that the ear canals are as dry as possible most of the time.

  • If your child gets a lot of infections, your doctor may say that he should not go swimming, and should always use earplugs or a shower cap when water might get into his ears. Usually it isn't necessary to avoid all swimming.
  • Ask your doctor whether your child should have ear plugs or wear a shower cap when having a bath or a shower.
  • Earplugs which are specially shaped to fit your child's ears might be helpful.
  • Get your child to dry his outer ear with a towel after swimming or having a bath or shower, then turn his head from side to side to help water to run out.
  • Do not dry the ear canals with cotton buds, and do not push anything else into the ear canals.
  • Your doctor may be able to recommend some eardrops which can help dry the ears.


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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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