Swimming Away From Swimmer's Ear

swimmers ear

Nothing takes the fun out of summer than when a child complains of an ear ache during a family vacation at the beach.

Let me lend everyone an ear and a few tips on something we call swimmer’s ear.

Why did my child get swimmers ear?

While most ear infections during the winter are caused by complications of a cold, swimmer’s ear is a little different.

It’s also called otitis externa, and is usually the result of your child swimming in pools, lakes, and water parks during the summer. Swimmer’s ear occurs when the ear canal is constantly exposed to water and heat. These two conditions cause the ear canal to become soggy. This sets up an ideal environment for germs to grow in the ear canal.

Initially, the ear may seem plugged; however, within a day or two it becomes quite painful. If it hurts when the earlobe is touched even gently, you can be sure this is a sign of swimmer’s ear.

How do I treat swimmer’s ear?

Treatment, especially if you are away from your doctor’s office, can involve a home remedy.

Mix equal parts of rubbing alcohol and vinegar. Then, insert a few drops of this mixture into the painful ear. Careful! Don’t use this if your child has ear tubes or a hole in their eardrum from a prior infection. This home remedy will help clean out debris, dry the ear, and help kill bacterial germs.

If the pain only worsens with these drops, please have a doctor check the ear. Your pediatrician may also recommend some prescription antibiotic and anti-inflammatory ear drops if the home remedy doesn’t work. To treat the pain, acetaminophen or ibuprofen will usually do the job.

Here’s the bad news: Whether you try the alcohol/vinegar drops or a prescription medication, your child will need to stay out of the water for 5-7 days. I know this is something that is more easily said than done.

Preventing swimmer’s ear

To prevent swimmer’s ear, make sure you do a couple things.

  • Insist on mandatory ear drying every 1-2 hours that your child is in the water. To do this, use the corner of a soft towel to dry up the moisture that may have gotten into their ears.
  • Ear plugs can also keep the moisture out.

Hopefully, you will not find tips like these to be painful ones when it comes to knowing a little bit more about how to handle swimmer’s ear this summer.

Lewis First, MD, is Chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. 

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