By Jan Drutz, M.D.
As children seek refuge from the summer heat by dipping into the area’s pools and lakes, parents need to be aware of the symptoms of painful swimmer’s ear.
“Swimmer’s ear” is a bacterial (or sometimes fungal) infection that can be caused by water entering the ear’s external auditory canal and causing a change in its normal acidity. Normally, a coating of earwax protects the membranous canal, but when the hydrogen ion concentration (pH, or normal acidity) of the canal is changed, it becomes susceptible to infection.
Swimmer’s ear is characterized by an inflammation and irritation of the external auditory canal. Itching can occur, but pain is the most common symptom. The canal becomes red and swollen and, in severe cases, it can swell shut. Even gentle movement of the outer portion of the ear, particularly the skin-covered cartilage just in front of the opening to the ear canal, can cause extreme discomfort. High fever or hearing loss is usually not associated with this type of infection; however, the pain usually is intense.
To avoid unnecessary discomfort, treat this infection as soon as possible. If the infection is bacterial, antibiotic eardrops – some of which also may contain steroids – are used to treat the infection and reduce inflammation of the canal. If the condition does not improve, it may be caused by a fungal infection that could require anti-fungal agents.
To ease pain and discomfort, acetaminophen, ibuprofen or stronger pain relievers may be prescribed. The child’s physician also may prescribe liquid drops containing a pain reliever to be applied into the external canal.
Most importantly, children who are being treated for swimmer’s ear should stay out of the water for at least five to seven days or until the infection is under control. With treatment, the condition usually clears in three to four days. Severe cases may take up to a week.
To prevent your child from getting swimmer’s ear this summer, take the following precautions:
• When your child gets out of the water, dry his or her ears with a clean towel.
• Use a few drops of hydrogen peroxide, or a home remedy of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar (mix an equal amount of each and apply 5-10 drops per ear) to maintain the ear canal’s normal acidity.
• Keep swimming activities in natural bodies of water (lakes and rivers) to a minimum, since the chance of acquiring swimmer’s ear in these places is greater. Pools that are chemically treated to maintain a normal PH balance are less likely to cause ear infections, and are a better choice for regular swims.
Dr. Jan Drutz is chief of the Texas Children’s Hospital Residents Primary Care Group and a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. For more information on the Residents Primary Care Group Clinic at Texas Children’s, visit www.texaschildrenshospital.org.