Swimmer's Ear vs. Ear Infection: What's the Difference?

Doctor checking a kid's ear

Two common conditions affecting the ear in children are swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) and middle ear infections (otitis media). While they share certain symptoms, they have different causes and treatments. If you have or care for children, the swimmer’s ear versus ear infection distinction is important to understand.

This article explains the two conditions and provides insights into swimmer’s ear vs. ear infection differences.

How to Tell the Difference Between Swimmer's Ear and Infection

What's the difference between swimmer's ear and ear infections? For one thing, swimmer’s ear is caused by water remaining in the outer ear after swimming, which creates an environment where bacteria can thrive. Ear infections are caused by bacteria or viruses behind the eardrum in the middle ear.

You can also tell the conditions apart based on various characteristics, including:


Whether a child has swimmer's ear or an ear infection, they’re likely to experience pain. The difference is the location of that discomfort. Swimmer’s ear causes pain in the outer ear. It’s especially noticeable when gently pulling the earlobe or otherwise manipulating the outer ear. The pain of an ear infection is focused in the inner ear and typically increases when a child is lying down.

Observable symptoms

Other swimmer's ear vs. ear infection differences are visible. Swimmer’s ear causes redness, a rash-like look, and swelling in the outer ear. Kids with the condition may also experience itching and have bad-smelling drainage from the ear.

Ear infections don’t typically cause noticeable exterior skin changes but are observable through a child’s behavior. This can include eating less than usual, pulling on the affected ear, and stomach issues. They also often develop a fever.

Difficulty hearing

One area where there’s little difference in swimmer's ear vs. a middle ear infection is trouble hearing. It may be one of the first things you notice in both conditions.

Other factors

Another clue about swimmer's ear vs. otitis media is a child’s activities and health before developing an ear problem. For example, if they have recently spent time in the water, the likelihood that they have swimmer’s ear increases.

A child who recently had a cold or other upper respiratory infection (with symptoms like congestion, a runny nose, etc.) is more likely to have an ear infection.

Treatment Options for Ear Pain

Ear problems may resolve without treatment. However, an inner or outer ear infection left untreated can worsen, so it’s a good idea to contact your child’s pediatrician if their condition doesn’t improve rapidly.

You can use warm compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers as directed to reduce a child’s symptoms while you wait to talk with or see a healthcare provider.

Swimmer’s ear treatment

Swimmer’s ear can often be addressed in an online appointment with a pediatrician or their team. The doctor can prescribe antibiotic ear drops to kill the harmful bacteria. Going forward, having your child wear earplugs while swimming, carefully drying their ears after water exposure, and using over-the-counter ear drops can help prevent a recurrence.

Ear infection treatment

Ear infections can cause complications like a perforated eardrum, so getting advice from a child’s pediatrician is crucial. If the symptoms flare up outside of office hours, you should take them to an urgent care center for diagnosis and treatment, which typically involves oral antibiotics.

When to Seek Additional Care

Knowing the difference between an ear infection and swimmer’s ear is essential. So is getting prompt medical attention for a worsening infection.

You should contact your child’s pediatrician if their swimmer’s ear or ear infection doesn’t resolve in a few days. And if their symptoms intensify before you can attend an appointment, you should visit an urgent care center.

Kids with frequent inner or outer ear infections may benefit from seeing a Baptist Health audiologist who can recommend a long-term solution.

Learn More.