In Florida our children swim for almost the entire year. For this reason we do have a higher rate of swimmer’s ear which we pediatricians call otitis externa which means an infection in the outer ear canal. This is different than a typical ear infection which is called otitis media where the infection is behind the ear drum and not in the canal. However, in some cases, a swimmers ear can cause an ear infection and vice versa.
Swimmer’s ear is an inflammation of the external ear canal. It occurs when water gets into the ear—usually during swimming or bathing—and does not properly drain. The water in the ear can be trapped by ear wax or sometimes it is just the shape of the ear canal that can cause it to get trapped. When that happens, the canal can become irritated and bacteria, or sometimes even fungus, can start to grow and cause infection.
Children with this condition will feel pain in the ear especially the outer part of the ear itself is moved or touched. As the canal swells, hearing will decrease. Sometimes the infected ear may ooze yellowish pus and can have a foul smell.
Swimmer’s ear can be diagnosed by examining the ear canal with an otoscope. This helps us determine if it is an outer or middle ear infection or both. It is typically treated with an antibiotic ear drop and if there is a lot of pain and swelling a combination antibiotic with steroid drop will be used. Also, try keeping your child’s ear canal as dry as possible during the healing process; that means delaying washing and shampooing until the inflammation has disappeared. We typically will ask that you delay swimming for a few days depending on the amount of inflammation.
Once a child has had a swimmer’s ear infection, you should try to prevent future episodes. Using ear plugs to prevent water entering the ear is an ideal and easy way of prevention. Another way is making your own mixture of one-half alcohol, one-half white vinegar. This is easy to do: take 1 tablespoon rubbing alcohol and 1 tablespoon of white vinegar and mix together – you can use an old cleaned out medicine bottle to keep it in, but make a new mixture every 1-2 weeks. Use 2-3 drops in each ear after swimming to prevent the growth of bacteria.
If your child has a problem with chronic ear wax they may be prone to more swimmer’s ear as stated above and you should schedule an ear cleaning at the office. There are some pre-treatment directions that must be done prior to this so please get these directions before scheduling the appointment.