Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are not located inside the Russian Federation

honeypot link

Ear Canal Infection (Swimmer's Ear)

(Acute External Otitis)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Reviewed/Revised Mar 2022 | Modified Sep 2022
Get the full details
Topic Resources

What is an ear canal infection?

Ear canal infection is an infection of your ear canal (the tube that connects the outside of your ear to your eardrum). It differs from a middle ear infection (otitis media Ear Infection (Acute Otitis Media) Your middle ear is a hollow space behind your eardrum. The middle ear contains 3 tiny bones that send your eardrum's vibrations to the nerves in your inner ear. Acute otitis media is a painful... read more Ear Infection (Acute Otitis Media) ), which is an infection behind your ear drum.

An ear canal infection is especially common after swimming, which is why it’s often called “swimmer’s ear.” But most ear canal infections are not in people who had been swimming.

  • Ear canal infection is usually caused by bacteria

  • You'll have ear pain and a white or yellow fluid draining from your ear

  • Doctors can tell if you have an ear canal infection by examining your ear

  • Doctors will clean out your ear and give you antibiotic eardrops and pain relievers

  • Keep water out of your ear until the infection clears up

The Outer Ear

The Outer Ear

What causes an ear canal infection?

What are the symptoms of an ear canal infection?

Symptoms include:

  • Itching

  • Pain

  • White or yellow fluid draining from your ear

If the infection is bad, your ear canal may swell shut and you may have trouble hearing.

Sometimes, the infection affects just one spot in your ear canal and forms a painful pimple. When the pimple breaks open, blood and pus leak out.

How can doctors tell if I have an ear canal infection?

Doctors tell if you have an ear canal infection by looking in your ear.

How do doctors treat an ear canal infection?

Doctors may:

  • Use suction or dry cotton wipes to clean out your ear

  • Have you use ear drops several times a day for up to a week

  • If your infection is severe, they may place a strip of gauze in your ear for a day or two to help the medicine get into your ear

  • Cut open any pimples to let the pus out

  • Tell you not to swim or fly for a while and to keep water out of your ear

How can I prevent an ear canal infection?

To lower your chance of getting an ear canal infection:

  • After swimming, put drops in your ear made from a solution of half white vinegar and half rubbing alcohol—don't do this, though, if you have any problems with your eardrum

  • Don't poke cotton swabs or other objects into your ears to try to clean them—this can push dirt further into your ear and hurt your ear canal

  • Keep hair spray, hair dye, or other chemicals out of your ear

  • Clean earplugs or hearing aids before you use them

quiz link

Test your knowledge

Take a Quiz!