By: Howard Gollup, MD, Aurora Health Care
With the return of summer comes trips to pools, beaches, and lakes. It’s also the time a common summer health problem makes its return – swimmer’s ear.
Unlike common middle ear infections seen in infants and young children during cold and influenza season, swimmer’s ear is an infection of the external ear canal, just beyond the visible opening of the outer ear.
A Problem Commonly Seen in Swimmers
Getting splashed or washing your hair in the shower doesn’t cause swimmer’s ear. It requires more soaking, such as prolonged swimming or diving.
Spending time in water causes the typically dry ear canal to remain damp. Also, repeated flushing with water changes the normally acidic environment of the external ear canal to a neutral pH. These conditions are ideal for bacteria that cause infection in the lining of the ear canal. The resulting inflammation can be acutely painful, especially when the external ear canal is disturbed; pulling on the ear lobe, pushing the skin in front of the opening to the ear canal, and even chewing can cause a sudden increase in pain.
Preventing Swimmer’s Ear
After a day of swimming, take these simple measures to prevent ear infections:
- Tilt the head to one side and gently pull on that earlobe to straighten it, which allows excess water to drain. Gentle tapping on the earlobe with a towel may also help. Drain both ears.
- Use a swimmer’s ear preventative. These include over-the-counter preparations containing alcohol (to dry the ear canal) or a weak acid (to restore the normal acidic pH). Some experts recommend a few drops of a 1:1 mixture of vinegar and water.
- A snug swimmers cap or form-fitting flexible silicone earplugs can help keep water out of the ear. (Keep in mind; earplugs impair children’s ability to hear.) A wad of cotton saturated with some petroleum jelly will also work.
- Most ear doctors recommend children with ear tubes wear ear plugs for swimming.
- Never insert anything into the ear beyond the opening, including cotton swabs.
Treating Swimmer’s Ear
Your doctor will likely prescribe topical ear drops containing an antibiotic and a steroid to help reduce inflammation (unlike middle ear infections that are treated with oral antibiotics). It can take several days for pain to subside. During that time, swimming is usually not advised. Some experts say swimming is okay if earplugs are used, but most children with swimmer’s ear won’t tolerate anything put in their ear canal.
Other Swimming Safety Tips
- All children – including good swimmers—should be supervised by a responsible older person.
- Make sure your children learn to swim. Teach them to respect the water and to be cautious of situations beyond their experience, such as deep or moving water.
- Home swimming pools should be in a secure, fenced area, to prevent unauthorized or unsupervised use. Consider a floating “pool alarm.”
- Children in boats or other recreational vehicles should always wear flotation vests.
- Teach children and adolescents to never dive into water before knowing how deep it is or whether there are rocks or ledges underneath the surface.
These tips can help you and your kids enjoy summer safely and without pain.