Is there any way to prevent swimmer’s ear? Do home remedies really work

Dr. Jacqueline Kaari, a pediatrician with The University Doctors, responds: Even though our weather this season has been relatively cool and rainy, we’ve already started to see some children in our office with complaints of otitis externa, the medical term for swimmer’s ear. Generally speaking, swimmer’s ear is not a serious ailment, but it can cause a significant amount of discomfort, especially for a young child. At the same time, it is an infection and your child will need appropriate medication to recover quickly and avoid complications.

Swimmer’s ear occurs when water gets trapped in the ear canal, the open tube that leads from the outside to the inner ear. This trapped water helps create a warm, moist environment, which is perfect for bacteria to grow. You don’t have to take a dip in a pool or lake to get swimmer’s ear. It’s possible to develop this infection when water from a shower or bath gets trapped in the ear. Along with pain and itching in the ear canal, swimmer’s ear will often cause the outer ear to be tender when touched. Some individuals will also experience a temporary change in their hearing in the affected ears. As the infection becomes worse, you may also notice a white or yellow drainage in the ear canal.

The body’s natural defense against swimmer’s ear is the thin layer of wax, called cerumen, in the ear. This waxy substance repels water and creates an acidic environment in the ear canal in which bacteria cannot grow. When children spend a lot of time in the water, the cerumen can sometimes get washed out of the ear canal.

Prevention is key when dealing with swimmer’s ear. Make sure to use a soft towel (not a cotton swab) to thoroughly dry the ear canal after swimming or bathing. If your children can tolerate them, you can have them wear earplugs when swimming.

Ear drops, applied before and after swimming, are also a good way to avoid swimmer’s ear. You can purchase ear drops at a pharmacy or mix up your own using equal measures of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol. Apply a few drops of the solution to each ear and then let it drain back out. Do not use these drops if symptoms of swimmer’s ear are already present as it could cause significant pain.

If your child complains of ear pain and the outer ear is tender to the touch, contact your pediatrician who can diagnose swimmer’s ear through a routine office examination. Your pediatrician will probably prescribe an over-the-counter pain medication, such as children’s acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to ease the pain and antibiotic drops to clear up the infection. Remember to administer the antibiotic drops according to instructions. Most cases of swimmer’s ear will respond well to treatment, but it is possible for the infection to return if not wiped out completely with the first course of treatment.

Originally Published in The University Doctors' MedicaLink - 06/09

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