Swimmer's Ear And How It Can Be Treated

July 25, 2011


Those hazy crazy days of summer are here!

Summer in Houston means hot, humid weather with many people going to swimming pools, lakes and the beach for relief from the heat. With all of the water fun, we see more and more children with swimmer's ear, or external otitis. Swimmer's ear involves the external auditory canal and is totally separate from middle ear infection. Only rarely, a patient can have both types of infections at the same time.boy-swimming-in-pool

The symptoms include swelling of the ear canal, itching, drainage, hearing loss and pain. Usually there are several symptoms, the most pressing symptom being the sharp "stabbing" pain. Don't underestimate the severity of the pain associated with this relatively "simple" problem. Even though swimmer's ear is rarely serious, this is a VERY painful condition due to the plentiful supply of nerves to this area of the body.

Usually swimmer's ear can be treated successfully with a few steps. It is very helpful to suction debris out of the external auditory canal and then use ear drops in the canal to decrease the infection and the inflammation or swelling. Sometimes the swelling is so great that the opening to the external auditory canal is totally closed and drops will be prevented from reaching the walls of the ear canal. In these cases, the physician should

position a small wick in the external canal to draw the medication down the swollen canal. The wick, which functions as a straw carrying the drops to the infected area, usually remains in place for 72 hours. The wick can be removed easily and the drops should be continued for a period of days.

Some kids swim in pools, lakes and the ocean all summer long and never have even one episode of swimmer's ear while other kids can develop swimmer's ear after a bath or shower. No one can totally explain this, but there are a few risk factors.

For example, if your child has curvy, narrow or tortuous external canal, it will be more likely that water can get trapped following any type of water exposure. This type of anatomy is a set up for recurrent episodes of this painful process. There is also an increase in episodes if there are any abrasions to the lining of the canal. These abrasions most often occur from the use of cotton swab applicators.

In order to decrease episodes of swimmer's ear, there are a number of steps that you can consider. One is using ear plugs when swimming and carefully drying the external canal after swimming. My best suggestion to dry the ear canal is to put a terry cloth towel over your index finger and insert it into the child's ear canal to absorb the excess water that may be in the external canal. This is comfortable and effective.

Some people advocate using half strength alcohol; however, if there is an abrasion in the canal this solution will be very painful and poorly tolerated. Half strength vinegar is another home remedy often used, but I continue to suggest suctioning of the ear canal and special ear drops which contain a steroid and antibiotic. The drugstore prescription drops are usually quite effective, especially when combined with cleaning the ear canal of debris. Oral antibiotics are rarely necessary for this condition.

Using these simple tips should help you and your child enjoy all of the water related activities that are so popular. So keep those ear canals dry, wear sunscreen and have a healthy summer!

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