Local pharmacists Andrea Burns and Tara Storjohann tackle a common, painful summer ailment
Local pharmacists Andrea Burns and Tara Storjohann tackle a common, painful summer ailment.
QUESTION: My 11-year-old son spends a lot of time in the pool this time of year, and we constantly struggle with him getting swimmer’s ear. What causes swimmer’s ear, what is the best treatment, and is there a way to prevent him from getting it?
ANSWER: These are great questions, and they’re very common ones for pharmacists to get this time of year. With temperatures now well in the 100s. the only outdoor activity that keeps very active kids happy in the summertime is the swimming pool. Before I get right to your question, I will start with a little background information.
Swimmer’s ear (also called otitis externa) can be a very painful condition. It typically occurs when water, sand, or other small fragments irritate the delicate skin in the ear canal, causing the growth of bacteria or fungi. Moisture, humidity, and water in the ear canal are thought to remove the protective lining (earwax) and increase the pH, thereby increasing the risk for infection. Swimmer’s ear can affect all ages but can also affect people with eczema (condition that causes the skin to itch) or individuals who have excessive ear-cleaning habits.
Symptoms of swimmer’s ear are usually mild at first. They begin with ear-canal itching, mild discomfort, clear drainage, and redness. If left untreated, the symptoms can progress to intense pain, hearing loss, swelling of the outer ear, and fever. If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it’s important to contact a health care professional right away. Swimmer’s ear is typically diagnosed by examining the ear canal and eardrum and by asking questions about symptomology.
The goal of treatment is to stop the infection and allow the ear canal to heal. Medications used to treat swimmer’s ear vary depending on the symptoms being experienced. Health care providers may prescribe a solution to help restore the pH of the ear canal or medications to reduce pain and inflammation or to fight infection. While undergoing treatment for swimmer’s ear, it’s best to avoid the following:
- Wearing earplugs, hearing aids, or headphones
- Getting water in the ear canal when bathing.
Lastly, prevention of swimmer’s ear is important since it can be pure torture to deny your children a trip to the swimming pool with their friends. My advice is to follow these tips for a swimmers-ear-free summer:
- Cover up: Use swimming caps and earplugs while swimming to keep ears dry.
- Keep dry: Dry the outer ears thoroughly with a soft cloth after exposure to moisture from swimming or bathing. A cotton ball coated in Vaseline can help protect the ear during bathing. Another tip is to use a hair dryer to carefully dry the ear after showering. Make sure it’s on the coolest and lowest setting and held at least a foot away from the ear.
- Keep out: Don’t use cotton swabs, fingernails, or other objects to remove earwax. They may pack earwax and dirt deeper into the ear canal, remove the layer of earwax that protects your ear, and irritate the thin skin of the ear canal. This creates an ideal environment for infection.
- Test it: Pool strips can be used to test if the water’s pH is at the correct level. Maintaining correct pH levels can prevent the germs that cause swimmer’s ear.
- Drop it: An at-home preventative treatment is to put a few drops of rubbing alcohol or rubbing alcohol mixed with an equal amount of white vinegar in your ears after you swim or shower. You can also use over-the-counter drops such as Swim-Ear to help prevent swimmer’s ear. Wiggle the outside of the ear to let the liquid enter the ear canal. Eardrops should not be used in people with ear tubes, ear drainage, active ear infections, or damaged eardrums. A physician should be consulted if there is pain or drainage (pus or liquid) in the ear.
More information on this and other topics can be found at the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery’s website, entnet.org