Do you know the differences between swimmer’s ear and an ear infection? While they can both cause pain and discomfort for your child, the symptoms and treatments, as well as the ways each can be prevented, differ.

Swimmer’s Ear

Is your child experiencing ear pain after swimming or getting water in his ear canals? If so, he may have swimmer’s ear. This is an infection or irritation of the skin that lines the ear canal—the narrow tube with the eardrum at the bottom. When water gets trapped in the ears, the lining becomes wet and swollen. This may provide a source for bacteria to grow.


  • Clear fluid leaking from ear
  • Ear itching
  • Full or plugged-up ear sensation
  • Pain that increases when the ear is moved up or down
  • Pain when pushing on the tab of tissue in front of the ear
  • Redness or swelling of the outer ear

Swimmer’s ear can be treated safely at home. Treatment options include pain medication, over-the-counter Swim-EAR® drops (or other brands) and keeping the ear canal dry. Ear drops should not be used if your child has ear tubes or a possible ruptured eardrum. With treatment, symptoms should improve in about three days and resolve in seven.

Tips to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear:

  • After showering, hair washing or swimming, help the water run out of the ear by having your child tilt her head to one side.
  • Hold a hair dryer, set on low, at arm’s length away from the ear to dry it.
  • Don’t use cotton swabs (Q-tips®) to clean the ear as this can pack the earwax and cause water to get trapped behind it.

Ear Infection

An ear infection is due to swelling in the middle ear cavity. This swelling is caused by a blocked Eustachian tube (the tube that links the middle ear with the throat) and is usually part of a common cold. Fluid builds up and allows bacteria and viruses to grow. Ear infections in children occur most often between 6 months and 2 years of age but can be common until age 8. They are also most frequent after day three of a cold.


  • Decreased hearing
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Ear drainage
  • Fever (about half of children experience this)
  • Fussiness
  • Loss of balance
  • Pain or discomfort in or around the ear
  • Tugging at or pulling at one or both ears

If your child experiences any of these symptoms, contact your child’s pediatrician.

Treatment for an ear infection may include pain medication, applying a cold pack to the outer ear for 20 minutes, or analgesic ear drops and antibiotics (by mouth or ear drops). Not all children older than age 2 will need an antibiotic for an ear infection. After examining your child, the doctor will be able to figure out the best plan.

Tips to Prevent Ear Infection:

  • Keep your child away from cigarette smoke.
  • Avoid bringing your child in contact with sick people for the first year of life.
  • Breastfeed your child for the first 6 to 12 months.
  • Position your child upright during feedings.
  • Keep your child’s immunizations up to date.
  • Keep your child’s allergies under control.


It is important to keep in mind that neither of these conditions is contagious. There is no need to miss school or daycare unless the child is not feeling well enough to attend.

This article was written by Michelle Sarli, RN, a nurse on the Answer Line at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.


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