Posted by JoannaRasmuson

What’s the Difference Between Middle Ear Infections and Swimmer’s Ear?

August 12, 2019 Family Medicine

When your child has an earache, they can experience significant pain that prevents them from sleeping or eating. If left untreated, ear infections can pose a risk of serious complications.

Children are prone to ear problems, including both swimmer’s ear and middle ear infections. Understanding the difference between the two and recognizing the symptoms of each can help parents determine when to call their family doctor for evaluation and treatment.

What Is Swimmer’s Ear?


Swimmer’s ear, known as otitis externa, is a type of infection that affects the outer portion of the ear canal. This condition occurs most frequently in children and young adults who spend a lot of time in the water. 

When water becomes trapped in the ear canal, this area becomes more vulnerable to infection. Kids can also develop otitis externa due to an overuse of cotton swabs or even a minor injury to the delicate skin of the canal, according to

Symptoms of swimmer’s ear include: 

  • Itching in the affected ear
  • Pain that worsens while chewing
  • Swelling and tenderness 
  • A plugged sensation
  • Clear or cloudy discharge


What Are Middle Ear Infections?

The most common type of ear infection in children is called otitis media. Whereas swimmer’s ear affects the outer portion of the ear canal, this condition affects the middle ear, just behind the eardrum.

Otitis media infections occur when the eustachian tube becomes swollen or blocked. Eustachian tubes facilitate drainage from the inner ear. When fluid cannot drain, it builds up behind the eardrum and infection develops. Although this type of infection can affect adults, children’s tubes are more prone to blockage.

Potential causes of otitis media infections include:

  • Sinus infections
  • Colds and allergies
  • Infected adenoids (patches of tissue high behind the nose)
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke


Symptoms of otitis media include the following:

  • Pain that worsens when lying down
  • Fever
  • Drainage
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Balance problems
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite


When Should You Contact Your Family Doctor for an Earache?

In most cases, an earache indicates the presence of infection and infection warrants a trip to your family doctor.

Although significant complications are rare, infections related to swimmer’s ear can progress to other parts of the ear and potentially spread to the bones of the skull. Middle ear infections, especially if the problem recurs or persists, can lead to hearing loss and other complications. 
If your child experiences an earache with severe pain, fever, vomiting or diarrhea, contact your doctor immediately. Likewise, if symptoms persist for more than one day, or if your child is under the age of six months, schedule an appointment with your family doctor as soon as possible.

Revere Health Orem Family Medicine is devoted to comprehensive healthcare for patients of all ages and providing thorough and timely healthcare for the entire family throughout all stages of life.


“Ear Infection – Acute.” MedlinePlus.


“Ear – Swimmer’s.”


“Otitis Externa (Swimmer’s Ear).”
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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.