Summertime's Big Problem: Swimmer's ear ...
and how to prevent it!!!

Swimmer's ear is an infection of the ear canal. If you stick your finger in your ear, you're feeling a little of the ear canal. But if you have swimmer's ear, and you stick your finger in your ear - YOW! Let's find out more about this painful ear infection, which very often affects swimmers.

Swimmer's ear - sometimes called otitis externa (say: o-tie-tis ek-stur-nuh) - is different from a regular ear infection. Usually, when people say a kid has an ear infection, they mean otitis media (say: me-dee-uh), an infection of the middle ear. This might happen when the kid gets a cold.

But swimmer's ear happens when bacteria grow in the ear canal, which leads to the eardrum. In that canal, you'll find delicate skin that's protected by a thin coating of earwax. Most of the time, water can run in and out of the ear canal without causing a problem. For instance, you don't usually get swimmer's ear from taking baths or showers.

Bacteria get a chance to grow when water stays in the ear canal and it washes away the protective coating of earwax. A lot of swimming can wash away that wax protection and lead to these wet conditions in the ear canal. Bacteria grow and the ear canal gets red and swollen.

How Do I Know if I Have Swimmer's Ear?

Swimmer's ear may start with some itching, but try not to scratch because this can worsen the infection. Ear pain is the most common sign of swimmer's ear. Even touching or bumping the outside of the ear can hurt. The infection also could make it harder to hear with the infected ear because of the swelling that happens in the ear canal.

If a doctor thinks you have swimmer's ear, he or she will help you get rid of the infection. To do that, the doctor will probably prescribe eardrops that contain an antibiotic to kill the bacteria. Sometimes, the doctor may use a wick. Not the wick on a candle! This kind of wick is like a little sponge the doctor puts in your ear. The medicine goes into the sponge and it keeps the medicine in contact with the ear canal that's infected.

Use the drops as long as your doctor tells you to, even if your ear starts feeling better. Stopping too soon can cause the infection to come back. If your ear hurts, the doctor may suggest that your parent give you a children's pain medication. This can help you feel better while you're waiting for the antibiotic to work.

When Can I Go Back in the Pool?

The question every kid wants to know is: "When can I swim again?" You'll have to ask your doctor, but be prepared to wait a little bit. It could be as long as a week to 10 days before the doctor says OK. That's a bummer in the summer, but it's better than having that awful ear pain again!

If you have a big problem with swimmer's ear or you're a kid who's always in the water, the doctor may suggest ways for you to protect yourself. For instance, your mom or dad can get some special drops to put in your ears after swimming to dry up the water in there. It's an extra step that just might keep your ears in super shape all summer!

Prevention

Using over-the-counter drops of a dilute solution of acetic acid or alcohol in the ears after getting them wet can help prevent otitis externa, especially if your child is prone to the infection. These drops are available at pharmacies and should only be used in children who do not have ear tubes or a hole in the eardrum. After spending time in the water, it is also a good idea for children to gently dry their ears with a towel and help water run out of their ears by turning their heads to the side. Speak with your child's doctor before using earplugs.

To avoid trauma to the ear, children should not clean their ears themselves and should never put objects into their ears, including cotton-tipped applicators.

Recap on prevention

  • Dry the ear thoroughly after exposure to moisture.
  • Avoid swimming in polluted water.
  • Use earplugs when swimming.
  • Consider putting a few drops of a 1:1 mixture of alcohol and white vinegar in the ears after they get wet. The alcohol and acetic acid prevent bacterial growth.