Surfer’s Ear


Surfer’s ear affects the outer ear canal and is a type of infection.

The outer ear canal starts at the eardrum and extends to the outside of the head. Also referred to as otitis externa or swimmer’s ear, surfer’s ear generally occurs in those who spend a lot of time in water since this can result in the outer ear canal remaining moist, creating an ideal environment for the growth of bacteria.

  • Prompt treatment is important to help to reduce the risk of more serious infections and other complications.
  • Patients who spend a lot of time in water should know the symptoms and not hesitate to see their doctor if any occur.


In most cases, this infection is caused by bacteria. However, in less common instances, a virus or fungus may be to blame. The ears have a set of natural defenses that work to prevent foreign invaders from getting into the ear and causing infection. However, if these defenses become overwhelmed, infection can result. Common factors that negatively impact these defenses include:

  • Excess ear moisture due to prolonged humid weather, heavy sweating, or water staying in the ear after surfing or swimming
  • Sensitivity reactions or skin conditions that can reduce the natural protective abilities of the ear
  • Abrasions or scratches in the ear canal due to factors, such as scratching inside the ear or improper use of a cotton swab


Initially, the symptoms are generally mild. If left untreated or the infection spreads, it can progress to a moderate or severe infection. The symptoms depend on the overall severity. For a mild infection, symptoms may include:

  • Ear canal itching
  • Mild discomfort
  • Slight redness in the ear
  • Some fluid drainage that is odorless or clear

When the infection moderately progresses, symptoms may include:

  • More intense itching
  • More extensive redness
  • Pus drainage
  • Muffled or reduced hearing
  • Increasing pain
  • Excessive fluid damage
  • Feeling like there is a blockage in the ear

At the most advanced level of progression, symptoms may include:

  • Severe pain
  • Pain may go to the neck, face or side of the head
  • Outer ear swelling or redness
  • Fever
  • Complete ear canal blockage
  • Neck lymph node swelling


Ear drops that target the offending foreign invader are a common course of treatment. However, before these can be properly used, doctors may need to clean the outer ear canal. This will remove discharge, flaky skin, earwax, and other debris that may inhibit the ear drops from getting to the infected area. An ear curette or suction device is usually sufficient for the cleaning process.

The type of ear drop prescribed depends on the source and severity of the infection. They commonly include one or more of the following:

  • Acidic solution to restore the antibacterial environment that is natural in the ear
  • Antibiotic to kill off any bacteria
  • Steroid to alleviate inflammation
  • Antifungal medication to kill off any fungus

If the patient is experiencing pain, a medication may be recommended for this. In mild to moderate cases, over-the-counter options are generally sufficient. However, a prescription-strength pain reliever might be needed for severe progression.