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Child Health 411

with Ari Brown, MD

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Your Questions About Swimmer’s Ear

The Perils of Summer Part Three

family swimming

Polka Dot Images/Getty Images/ Thinkstock

It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy. Unless you get swimmer’s ear! If you have never had an outer ear infection (the skin lining the ear canal), you should be very glad. Swimmer’s ear is a really painful infection. The good news is that is easily treated. And more importantly, it is easily avoided.

I asked Mark Brown, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at Great Hills ENT in Austin, TX for his advice. He’s an expert on this malady. (And since he’s married to me, he was available for the interview and happy to oblige!)

Q. What is swimmer’s ear?

A. Normally, the ear canal (the opening in the outer ear that leads to the ear drum) has a small amount of wax that coats the skin and protects it. The wax keeps the pH very high, which makes it an inhospitable environment for most bacteria. Enter the swimming pool (or lake, river, ocean). Water washes in and out of the canal. If the skin gets wet, and stays wet,  it becomes a less effective barrier to bacteria. This can lead to infection of the skin of the ear canal — a.k.a. swimmer’s ear. Not only does this ruin your fun in the water,  it really hurts.

Q. How is swimmer’s ear treated?

A. Treatment is usually very simple. Prescription ear drops containing antibiotics (and often topical anti-inflammatory steroids) are prescribed. Typically within 24-48 hours the pain is relieved and the infection is well on its way to resolution. Rarely, an oral antibiotic can be used with the drops, in more severe cases. The downside: the patient cannot get his ear wet until after the infection has cleared. In other words, it’s okay to get into a pool but it’s not okay to go under water. Bummer.

Q. Is any other treatment necessary?

A. If the pain if not subsiding within a day or two, it’s possible that the ear canal is so swollen that the antibiotic drops cannot get into the canal to treat the infection. In that case, an ear, nose, and throat specialist can insert a spongy material into the ear canal to allow the medication to be delivered and effectively treat the infection.

Q. Is there a way to prevent swimmer’s ear?

A. Yes. You can keep your kids out of the pool, lake or ocean. (Just kidding.) Or you can make up your own preventative ear drops that are effective, safe and — best of all — cheap. In a dropper bottle, mix plain old rubbing alcohol with plain old white vinegar, half and half, and place a couple of drops into the ear canals after swimming. It works like a charm. Use it after every swim and you can avoid a lousy, painful, fun-depriving infection. (One caveat, if your child has a hole in the eardrum or if your child has PE tubes, don’t use any drops that aren’t prescribed by a physician. The alcohol and vinegar mix will burn if they make it into the middle ear.)

An ounce (or a few drops in this case) of prevention is worth a huge amount of cure.

Read more from the Perils of Summer series:

How do you deal with swimmer’s ear? Have you had success in preventing it? Share your advice with the Parenting Community.

Posted by: Ari Brown, MD at 10:09 am