How Long Can Water Stay In Your Ear

How Long Can Water Stay In Your Ear
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Doctors recommend not using hydrogen peroxide too often.

6 ways to get water out of the ear

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Water in the ear will usually drain out naturally. However, sometimes a person may need to use home remedies to treat the blocked ears.

Water can remain in the ear after swimming or other activities that allow water into the ear canal. A person with water trapped in their ear may experience a tickling or itching sensation that extends from the ear to the jaw or throat. They may also have issues with hearing, including hearing muffled sounds.

Usually, the water will drain out by itself due to the ear’s structure and water-repellant earwax. If the water does not drain out, it may lead to an outer ear infection, called swimmer’s ear.

This article discusses six tips to safely remove water from the ear and the methods to avoid, preventions, risks, and when to seek medical attention.

A person can try various things to help drain water from the ear or clear out any debris trapping the liquid in the ear. If people try one or more of the following tips, it may help resolve the issue.

Experts recommend that people do not insert any foreign objects into the ear canals. Doing so can cause injuries or worsen earwax (cerumen) impaction by pushing it deeper into the canal.

If the issue worsens or persists for a few days, a person should consult a doctor even after trying these methods.

Many people will instinctively move or tug the earlobe when water gets in their ears.

Lying down on one side and keeping still for a few minutes may help the liquid drain or trickle from the ear.

Tilt the head so the affected ear faces down. Hold the earlobe with the thumb behind the ear and gently tug and jiggle the ear in all directions. This may help shake the inside of the ear and create a path for any trapped water to flow out.

It may also help to wiggle the deeper areas of the ear during this process. Try yawning, wiggling the jaw, or making exaggerated chewing motions with the mouth to help move water towards the outer canal, and then tug at the earlobe to finish the process.

If a person experiences pain while tugging the earlobe, this is a sign of infection, and time to consult a doctor. They may prescribe medicated eardrops to clear an infection if that is the underlying cause.

In addition to eardrops, some doctors in the United States may perform aural toilet. This involves inserting a thin instrument with a small hoop into the ear to clean it.

Using the palms to get some reverse pressure in the ear and vacuum the water out may be possible.

Tilt the head to the side so the affected ear faces down. Cup the hand around the ear, so the palm covers most of the ear and ear canal.

Push the cupped palm toward the ear, slightly pressing the ear into the head, and then pulling away again. The palm should flatten as it presses into the ear and cup again as it pulls away. The person should feel suction and release in the ear during this activity.

After doing this a few times, tilt the head down to allow the liquid to drain. It may help to jiggle the earlobe again to help the water out.

Soak a towel or washcloth in warm water and squeeze out the extra water. Make sure the towel is not too hot, as this may cause a burn or irritation in the ear.

A warm compress may help relax the tissues in the ear and loosen congestion in the area.

Fold the towel and tilt the head, resting the ear on the compress. Rest there for several minutes, letting the warmth relax the ear and promote drainage.

It may also help to use other techniques after the ear is warm, such as yawning or tugging at the ear to promote further drainage.

Some people may choose to evaporate any extra water in the ear canal using air from a blow dryer. To do this, rest the head on a towel or pillow, with the affected ear facing the blow dryer.

Put the blow dryer on the lowest setting, and keep the device at least a foot away from the head. Pull on the ear lobe to open and direct more air into the ear.

Be sure to do this in a clean room free from dust, hair, or other debris that could blow into the ear. Ensure that the device is far enough away so the pressure from the air or sound from the motor does not damage the delicate structures in the ear.

Alcohol and vinegar may work together to help clear moisture and debris from the ear. Alcohol may help evaporate water. Both alcohol and vinegar may also help kill any bacteria in the ear and break down any earwax or other buildup blocking the ear.

Make a solution with an equal mix of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar. Once combined, tilt the head with the affected ear facing up, and apply a few drops into the ear.

Gently rub the outside of the ear, massaging the liquid into place. Leave it in the ear for about 30 seconds, and then allow it to drain out over a towel or the sink. Clean up and dry the outer ear.

People who have any ear issues, such as an ear infection, ruptured eardrum, or open cuts in the ear, should not use these remedies.

People can also use warm olive oil to help prevent ear infections and get water out of the ear. Place a few drops of the oil directly into the ear, and lie down on one side for several minutes. Sit up, tilt head, and allow the liquid to drip out.

Hydrogen peroxide solutions may help remove wax and debris blocking the path in the ear canal that may be trapping water and causing an issue. While earwax is important to trap debris and contaminants into the ear, it may also become clogged or trap water behind the wax.

Several over-the-counter (OTC) ear drops combine hydrogen peroxide with other ingredients to help unclog sticky or impacted earwax and other liquids stuck in the canal.

A diluted hydrogen peroxide solution may also help clear out the ear canal. To make the solution, mix 3% hydrogen peroxide (the concentration that researchers generally recommend to remove earwax) with an equal amount of water.

Tilt the head so the affected ear faces up. Put 2–3 drops of the solution into the affected ear and let it work for a few minutes. Slowly turn the head, let the ear drain into a towel or over the sink, and dry the outer ear.

Doctors recommend not using hydrogen peroxide too often.

Additionally, some people should not use hydrogen peroxide in their ears, including those who:

  • have had recent ear surgery
  • have ear tubes or ventilation tubes
  • have open cuts in their ear canal
  • may have a ruptured eardrum
  • have a possible ear infection

Anyone uncertain about their status should check with a doctor before using hydrogen peroxide in their ears.

There are some general tips to consider when getting water out of the ear.

There are certain don’ts, including:

  • putting objects into the ear canal, such as cotton swabs, paperclips, or bobby pins
  • putting the fingers or fingernails into the ears
  • placing blow dryers, fans, or things that force air into the ear very close to the ear, as the noise or pressure may be damaging to the delicate structures in the ear

No one should use either of the methods that involve ear drops if they already have an ear infection, a punctured eardrum, or ear tubes.

General tips to help prevent water from staying in the ear include:

  • wearing a cap, earplugs, or ear molds when bathing or swimming
  • avoiding submerging head in water
  • using a dry towel to clean the outside of the ears after coming out of the water
  • avoiding using earbuds or headphones for prolonged periods while sweating, such as during a heavy workout
  • talk with a doctor about regular wax buildup and how to keep the ears clear

However, blocking the ear with cotton balls and petroleum jelly when showering to make a water barrier seal is the safest, most reliable, and affordable treatment.

People who play water sports, swim, or are frequently in water may wear earplugs. Thoroughly drying and shaking the head from side to side after getting out of the water may also help drain water from the ears.

If water stays in the ear for too long, a person may develop an infection. The infection generally occurs as bacteria in the ear or water have an ideal place to multiply, leading to a response in the body that causes symptoms.

People may be more at risk of swimmer’s ear (acute otitis externa) if they swim in water that contains high levels of bacteria, such as a lake. Swimming pools and spas are generally safer, as they usually have rules about checking bacteria and pH levels regularly.

The risk of developing swimmer’s ear also increases for people who already have a chronic skin condition that affects the ear, such as psoriasis or eczema.

The ear has several defense mechanisms to protect against infections, but some issues can create the ideal conditions for an infection, including:

  • excess moisture in the ear
  • scratches or cuts in the ear canal
  • allergies to hair products or jewelry

Some doctors recommend that people with swimmer’s ear wear earplugs when swimming and dry the ears thoroughly with a blow dryer or towel afterward.

Infection and other complications

If an infection develops, people may experience intense itching and increasing pain. The ear may become too painful to touch. A person may also experience fluid drainage or a discharge of pus. A severe infection may lead to fever, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, and pain in the face, neck, or side of the head.

Some people will experience recurring ear infections (chronic otitis externa), and temporary hearing loss may occur. When the infection clears up, hearing usually improves.

Rarely, untreated swimmer’s ear can lead to bone and cartilage damage, or malignant otitis externa. In some cases, untreated ear infections can spread to the base of the skull or cranial nerves.

To evaluate a person’s swimmer’s ear, a doctor will look for redness and swelling in the ear canal and ask if they are experiencing any pain.

A doctor may also take a sample of any abnormal fluid or discharge in the ear (ear culture) to test for the presence of bacteria or fungus if a person has recurrent or severe infections.

A person should talk with a doctor if the problem persists for several days or if the ear becomes painful and inflamed at any point, as this is a sign of infection.

Ear infections can become serious if not properly treated.

If the pain is severe or a person has a fever, consult a doctor immediately.

It may be necessary to consult an ear specialist if:

  • an ear infection has not gone away 10-14 days after using antibiotic ear drops
  • the person has lost their hearing
  • the infections persistently reoccur

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommend that people do not attempt to remove earwax from their ears, as it is the earwax that helps protect the ear from infection.

Anyone who thinks that they have wax blocking their ear canal should talk with a doctor.

A person may get water trapped in their ear after bathing or swimming.

There are several simple ways to help encourage this water out of the ear. Some efforts, such as wearing swimmers’ earplugs, can help prevent water from becoming trapped in the ear.

Getting water out of the ear may help reduce the risk of infection and allow the ear to work as it should.

Anyone who cannot get the water out of their ear in a few days or who experiences other symptoms of infection along with this symptom should talk with a doctor or ear specialist.

Last medically reviewed on December 17, 2021

When You Have Fluid in the Ear

Fluid in the ear can be due to inflammation or congestion that blocks the eustachian tube, a small drainage passageway in your ear. This can happen when you have an ear infection, allergies, or the common cold. The blockage causes trapped fluid in the middle ear to fill the space behind the eardrum, leading to symptoms like muffled hearing and pressure or pain in the ear.

Having fluid in your ear is called serous otitis media (SOM) or otitis media with effusion (OME).

This article goes over what causes fluid buildup in the ear, how fluid in the ear is diagnosed and treated, and how you can prevent fluid from collecting in your ears.

causes of fluid accumulation in the ear

Symptoms of Fluid in the Ear

Symptoms of fluid in the ear can be mild or severe.

Possible symptoms include:

  • Ears that feel “plugged up” or fullness in the ears
  • Increasing ear pain when changing altitude; not being able to “pop” the ears
  • Ringing in the ears ( tinnitus )
  • Hearing loss or muffled hearing
  • Behavior problems and poor school performance
  • Rarely, you can have balance problems that cause you to feel dizzy or experience vertigo (the feeling like everything around you is spinning)

If you’ve had fluid in your ear before, you might be able to tell that it’s built back up again and know that you’ll need treatment.

Is Otitis Media With Effusion an Ear Infection?

Fluid in the ear from OME is not infected. Middle ear infections occur when ear fluid has been infiltrated by a bacterium or virus. That said, having OME can increase the chances of developing an ear infection.

Fluid in the Ears of Babies and Toddlers

Small children may not have symptoms of fluid in the ear at all. If they do, they may not be able to tell an adult what’s wrong.

If the child’s ear pain is not severe, caretakers may not even realize there’s a problem.

Fluid in the ear may not be suspected until a small child exhibits issues like balance problems, speech delays, or difficulty hearing/passing a hearing exam.

Causes of Fluid in the Ear

Fluid in the ears is caused by some form of auditory tube dysfunction.

  • Allergies
  • Congestion from a cold virus, infection, or even pregnancy
  • Enlarged sinus tissue, nasal polyps, tonsils, adenoids , or other growths that block the auditory tube (usually caused by chronic sinusitis)
  • Chemical irritants like cigarette smoke
  • Damage from radiation to treat head and neck cancer
  • Barotrauma to the ears (rapid changes in air pressure around you, such as when you’re flying in an airplane or scuba diving)
  • Oral differences that can occur with Down syndrome or cleft palate
  • Rarely, surgeries that cut across the auditory tube

Anyone can get fluid in their ears. However, it’s much more likely to occur in children because their auditory tubes are small.

Children’s tubes also run in a more horizontal direction than adults, which can encourage fluid to pool in the ear.

OME is one of the most common reasons that children get fluid in their ears. There are about 2.2 million cases of OME in the United States each year. About 90 out of 100 children will get fluid in their ears at some point before they are 5 or 6 years old.

Diagnosing Fluid in the Ears

Fluid in the ear often goes undiagnosed because it may not cause any symptoms. If your child has symptoms but you’re not sure what could be causing the fluid build-up in their ears, they should see their pediatrician or an ear, nose, and throat specialist ( otolaryngologist ).

A specialist may have better diagnostic equipment to figure out what’s causing the fluid buildup in a child’s ear. More importantly, a specialist’s experience helps them recognize subtle clues that could mean there’s fluid trapped in the ear.

Otoscope Exam

The best method for diagnosing fluid in the ears—particularly related to OME—is an ear exam with a handheld tool called an otoscope or otomicroscope . Otoscopes are more common because they’re less expensive, but otomicroscopes allow for a more accurate diagnosis.

Checking the ear with an otoscope is very simple. The healthcare provider pulls back the ear and gently inserts the tip of the otoscope. The scope brings the eardrum into view.

Experienced providers can see either a bubble or fluid level behind the eardrum. They may also see that the eardrum does not move as it should.

Sometimes, the only indication that there’s fluid in the ear is a slight retraction of the eardrum or abnormal color to it. That’s why it takes a skilled provider to make a diagnosis.

Tympanometry Exam

Fluid in the ear can be confirmed by another test called tympanometry . This test is similar to an otoscope exam, but the provider uses a tool called a tympanometer .

For the test, the tympanometer is placed in the outer ear canal. It’s important to hold very still during this test. If possible, you should not talk or swallow during the exam.

The instrument measures the pressure inside the ear.

How Is Fluid in the Ear Treated?

You may not need treatment for fluid in the ear that’s caused by otitis media with effusion. The fluid usually drains on its own within a few weeks. However, if it does not, the treatment will depend on several factors.

  • If the fluid is present for six weeks, treatment may include a hearing test, a round of antibiotics (if you have an active infection), or further observation.
  • If the fluid is present after 12 weeks, you will need a hearing test. If there is significant hearing loss, a provider may consider antibiotics or placing tubes in your ears.
  • If the fluid is still present after four to six months, you may need to have tubes placed in your ears surgically even if you don’t have much hearing loss.
  • If your adenoids are so large that they block your auditory tubes, they may need to be removed.

Antihistamines may help keep allergy symptoms and chronic sinusitis from clogging your ears, but they will not necessarily rid your ears of fluid that’s already there.

Children who are at a higher risk of complications from fluid in the ears, including those with developmental delays, may need earlier treatment.

If your child does not need treatment for fluid in the ears, your provider might tell you to manage their symptoms and wait for the fluid to clear up on its own. When fluid in the ear is caused by otitis media with effusion, the condition usually goes away whether or not a child has surgery.

Can You Prevent Fluid in the Ear?

These steps may help to prevent fluid from collecting in the ear:

  • Quit smoking and try not to be around cigarette smoke.
  • Stay allergy-free. Avoid substances that trigger your allergies (allergens).
  • Limit exposure. If your child is in daycare, consider switching to a smaller daycare (fewer kids means less exposure to germs).
  • Keep things clean. Wash your hands and your child’s toys frequently.
  • Avoid overusing antibiotics. Don’t take antibiotics if you don’t need to and don’t take them for longer than is necessary. For example, If you have a viral infection, antibiotics won’t help.
  • Consider breastfeeding if possible, even for just a few weeks. Infants who are breastfed get sick less often and are less likely to get ear infections even years later.
  • Stay up to date on vaccines. The pneumococcal vaccine (Prevnar) helps prevent the most common type of ear infection. Getting a yearly flu shot may help as well.


Fluid in the ear is a common condition that does not always need to be treated. Otitis media with effusion is the medical term for fluid buildup behind the eardrum. It’s a common reason for there to be fluid in the ears, especially in kids.

Having fluid in your ear can be caused by inflammation, mucous, a growth, or a structural problem in the ear that blocks the drainage of fluid from your auditory tube.

You may or may not have symptoms if you have fluid in your ears. You might feel pain or notice changes in how things sound if the fluid has built up.

Many times, fluid in the ear gradually goes away on its own. If you have an infection, you may need antibiotics. If the fluid buildup in your does not get better or gets worse, you might need surgery to help drain it.

Simple strategies may help prevent fluid buildup, like avoiding irritants and allergens; washing your hands, keeping your child’s toys and play areas clean, and staying up-to-date on vaccines.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take for fluid in the ear to go away in adults?

It can take up to three months for fluid in your ear to clear up on its own. If you continue to have problems, your provider may prescribe antibiotics and look for an underlying problem that could need specific treatment.

Tugging on the earlobe and shaking your head should help water flow out of the ear canal. You can also try to create a vacuum with the palm of your hand. Using a solution that’s 50% rubbing alcohol and 50% white vinegar after swimming can also dry the ear canal and may prevent infections caused by swimmer’s ear.

White, yellow, or brown earwax that drains from your ear is normal. It can be runny and should only be a small amount. If discharge continues or has blood or pus in it, seek emergency care. You may have a ruptured eardrum.

You may hear about eustachian tube rehabilitation, chiropractic, and herbal remedies being helpful for fluid in the ear. However, research on the safety and effectiveness of complementary/alternative treatments for otitis media with effusion is limited.

Your provider may want you to take an antihistamine or decongestant if you have fluid buildup in your ears. You may also need an antibiotic, depending on what is causing the fluid buildup.

Contrary to popular belief, getting water in a baby’s or young child’s ears will not cause serous otitis media. However, children who swim frequently and do not dry their ears enough may get swimmer’s ear—a completely different condition.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

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  2. Qureishi A, Lee Y, Belfield K, Birchall JP, Daniel M. Update on otitis media – prevention and treatment. Infect Drug Resist. 2014;7:15-24. doi:10.2147/IDR.S39637
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibiotic Prescribing and Use: Ear Infection.
  4. Fruhner M. What is middle ear fluid and how can this impact my child? Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
  5. Kwon C, Lee HY, Kim MG, Boo SH, Yeo SG. Allergic diseases in children with otitis media with effusion. Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol. 2013;77(2):158-61. doi:10.1016/j.ijporl.2012.09.039
  6. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Otitis Media With Effusion: Comparative Effectiveness of Treatments.
  7. Núñez-Batalla F, Jáudenes-Casaubón C, Sequí-Canet JM, et al. Diagnosis and treatment of otitis media with effusion: CODEPEH recommendations. Acta Otorrinolaringológica Española. 2019;70(1):36-46. doi:10.1016/j.otorri.2017.07.004
  8. Tufts Medical Center. Ear: Swimmer’s (otitis externa).
  9. Gao T, Li X, Hu J, et al. Management of traumatic tympanic membrane perforation: a comparative study. Ther Clin Risk Manag. 2017;13:927-931. doi:10.2147/TCRM.S139631
  10. American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery. Treating and Managing Ear Fluid.
  11. D’Alatri L, Picciotti PM, Marchese MR, Fiorita A. Alternative treatment for otitis media with effusion: eustachian tube rehabilitation. Acta Otorhinolaryngol Ital. 2012;32(1):26-30.
  12. UTHealth Houston McGovern Medical School. Fluid in the Ear.
  • American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Treating and managing ear fluid.
  • Medline Plus. Otitis media with effusion.
  • Rosenfeld RM, Shin JJ, Schwartz SR, et al. Clinical practice guideline: Otitis media with effusion (update). Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2016;154(1 Suppl):S1-S41. doi:10.1177/0194599815623467

By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.

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