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Ear Infection vs. Swimmer’s Ear—What Is the Difference?

Sun, sand, surf … and swimmer’s ear? Unfortunately, along with beach photos and memories of golden sunsets over the water, we often bring home another unwanted souvenir from summer vacation: swimmer’s ear.

Even though swimmer’s ear is not the same thing as a common ear infection, both are incredibly painful and have similar symptoms. What is the difference between the typical ear infection and swimmer’s ear?

Here’s some basic information about both types of infections.

Is it an ear infection or swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear is an infection in the ear canal, the tube that runs from the hole on the outside of the ear to the eardrum.

  • The medical name is otitis external

  • Usually caused by bacteria, but sometimes by a virus or fungus

  • Can make the ear itchy

  • Causes pain, which can be severe

  • Difficulty hearing; sounds are muffled

  • Fluid or pus drains out of the ear

  • Hurts when the ear is tugged or pressed on

Swimmer’s ear happens when germs get into the ear canal and cause an infection. Usually, earwax keeps the germs at bay. But if your skin is scratched or the earwax is softened, germs can get into the ear canal.

Trapped moisture in the ear canal after swimming or showering can contribute to breaking down the protective earwax barrier. Sticking anything in your ear, such as cotton swabs or bobby pins—even earbuds and hearing aids—can have the same effect on the delicate ear canal environment.

An ear infection is an infection in the middle ear, the space behind the eardrum where tiny bones pick up vibrations and pass them along to the inner ear.

  • The medical name is otitis media

  • Most common cause of earaches

  • Frequently seen in infants and children but can also affect adults

  • Often accompanies a cold or flu

When there is not enough fresh air ventilating the middle ear, keeping it clean and dry, an infection can set in. A block or clog in the Eustachian tube can keep fresh air out of the middle ear space behind the eardrum.

Because children and infants have softer, more immature Eustachian tubes that can’t stay open, ear infections are most prevalent among these groups. Other issues, such as a cold or flu, allergies, sinus infections, adenoid problems, smoke, and fumes can all affect air passage through the Eustachian tubes.

Treating ear infections

Whether it’s swimmer’s ear or a typical ear infection, you should consult a doctor as soon as you or your child notice pain. Most infections need to be treated with antibiotics for a full recovery, and delaying treatment could cause more complications.

Our staff at Marvel Clinic is experienced at treating both swimmer’s ear and common ear infections in our pediatric ENT (ear, nose, and throat) practice. We will assess your child’s symptoms and make a recommendation based upon our review.

For children who suffer from repeated ear infections or those whose ear infections do not improve with antibiotics, Tympanostomy tubes may be placed into the eardrum. The short, painless procedure is another option that our staff can discuss if it’s appropriate for your situation.

Don’t let ear pain—whether caused by swimmer’s ear or a common ear infection—plague you any longer. Call us today at 931-451-8401 to set up an appointment to find out the cause and get relief fast.

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