Dr. Mom: Swimmers ear normal and very treatable

07/19/2012 12:00 AM

07/19/2012 7:16 AM

During the longer and hotter days of summer, many children flock to the pool. Swimming is no doubt a favorite summertime activity.

My kids are no different.

With this increased exposure to water comes an infection that typically spikes during these months. And if you guessed swimmer's ear (a.k.a. otitis externa) you guessed right.

This appropriately named type of ear infection can affect children and adults alike, though it's most common in children ages 5 to 9. It's the result of water getting trapped in the ear canal, creating a too-perfect environment for bacteria to take hold and multiply.

So your child doesn't necessarily have to be swimming to get this type of infection. Any time your child spends in water with ears submerged can result in one (i.e. taking a bath).

It's also more common in children with eczema, in which skin in the ear canal is dry and itchy, and prone to being scratched.

The symptoms

Children will complain of a feeling of fullness in their ears, which soon evolves into pain. The pain often increases when the ear is tugged on or when chewing and yawning. White or yellow discharge may also be noticeable.

Swimmer's ear is not the same as an inner-ear infection, or otitis media. The infection of swimmer's ear is limited to the outer ear canal; in otitis media, the infection is behind the ear drum in the inner canal.

On inspection, your child's doctor will see a noticeable swollen and red ear canal that may be filled with discharge. Antibiotic drops applied directly into the ear canal for seven days will clear up the infection in most cases.

It's also important for your child to keep that ear dry for the duration of treatment. That means using a shower cap when bathing or showering, and no swimming for seven to 10 days, by which time the ear is healed.

Some children who swim competitively can be fitted with proper ear plugs to prevent water from entering the canal while being treated.

A word on prevention

If your child is prone to swimmer's ear, he or she doesn't have to give up swimming, but there are some preventive steps:

Don't use cotton swabs to clean the ear or remove wax. Wax is actually protective, and removing it completely takes away your child's natural barrier against bacteria.

In addition, the use of swabs has the potential for damaging the eardrum. To clean the ear, simply use your pinky covered by a washcloth when you bathe your child.

Teach your child to drain water from his or her ears after swimming or playing in any water, including the bathtub. Have them lean from side to side until they feel it draining out.

You can use a hair dryer on the lowest heat and speed setting to aid in the drying process.

Alcohol-based eardrops, found in any grocery story or pharmacy, used in the ears after swimming will help evaporate trapped water. Just be sure not to use them if your child has ear tubes.

Yes, swimmer's ear can be annoying, painful and inconvenient, but don't let it make your little one a fish out of water. It can be prevented and treated. He or she will be back in the water in no time.


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