By Dr. Leighanne Dorton, Pediatric and Adult Otolaryngologist, Charlotte Eye Ear Nose and Throat Associates, Salisbury
With summer in full force, it’s tough to be outside without something to combat the heat. Many parents choose to skip the heat exhaustion and take their kids to the pool, lake, or water park for the day. Good way to beat the heat? Of course! But frequenting the water can have certain health risks, especially to the ear. Ever heard of the dreaded “swimmer’s ear?” It’s the buzz kill that can keep children out of the pool for a week. In the following article, you’ll get the run down on the causes, symptoms, treatments, and prevention methods of this infection so you and your kids can keep splashing the summer away.
What is “Swimmer’s Ear?”
“Swimmer’s ear,” professionally known as Otitis Externa, occurs when water gets trapped in the ear canal, creating the perfect Petri Dish for unwanted bacteria and fungal organisms. Otitis Externa is different than the typical recurring ear infections that require kids to need ear tubes… that’s Otitis Media. Children and teenagers are the most likely age-group to contract swimmer’s ear, so it’s a good idea to be on guard for your child. While any water that gets trapped in the ear has the potential to turn into swimmer’s ear, infection is most likely to develop after contact with bacteria in hot tubs, polluted water, and natural water, such as lakes.
What are the symptoms?
Because swimmer’s ear can eventually cause permanent damage, such as hearing loss, recurring ear infections, narrowing of the ear canal, and severe infections, it is important to receive prompt treatment. In its early stages, swimmer’s ear is marked by itching, redness, and discomfort of the ear. Some drainage of a clear, odorless fluid can occur and touching the outer ear can intensify pain. In an advanced case, pain is much more intense, the outer ear and lymph nodes in the upper neck can become red and swollen, and a fever can occur. If your child comes to you complaining of “fullness” or “blockage” inside the ear, take into consideration that this could just mean he or she has some water trapped inside his or her ear, not that it is infected. However, if you notice or suspect any of the mentioned symptoms along with this “blockage,” or the blockage lasts for more than a day, it is worth scheduling a trip to the doctor.
How is Swimmer’s Ear treated?
Medical treatment is necessary to eliminate swimmer’s ear. Otolaryngologists – or ear, nose, and throat specialists – are best equipped to treat the infection. The doctor will examine your child’s ear with a lighted instrument – or maybe even a microscope – in order to determine the cause of the symptoms. The doctor may clean out the ear canal with small, specialized ear instruments and may also take a sample of the fluid or discharge from the ear to see what kind of bacteria or fungus is causing the infection. Usually, swimmer’s ear can be treated with eardrops and does not require an oral medication. Common prescriptions include eardrops with antibiotics to treat the infection and steroids to reduce inflammation or swelling. Sometimes, antifungal or acidic medications may be used. If the ear canal is really swollen, the doctor may have to place a temporary sponge in the ear to help decrease swelling and allow the drops to get down deep into the ear canal. The infection will usually clear up in about 7-10 days. A follow up appointment is crucial to beating swimmer’s ear because if the infection has not been eradicated, the bacteria could return again, much more resistant to antibiotics than before.
How should ear drops be administered?
The success of eardrops has much to do with the proper application of such drops. For the best results, the person with swimmer’s ear should lie on his or her side, with the ear facing upwards. Another person should administer the prescribed number of drops. The patient should remain laying with his or her ear facing upwards for a few minutes, so the drops can be properly absorbed.
Can my child still swim while being treated for Swimmer’s Ear?
In order to ensure the most effective treatment, your child should NOT swim while being treated for swimmer’s ear and should keep the ear dry except for the prescribed drops. You can place cotton balls coated with some Vaseline into the ears to keep water out of the ears during bath-time or showers. The patient should also avoid wearing earplugs, hearing aids, and headphones until cleared by the doctor.
How can I prevent Swimmer’s Ear?
But what if you don’t want to put a stop to your summer fun in the sun in the first place? There are ways to prevent swimmer’s ear before it even happens. Try to refrain from using Q-tips or excessively cleaning your ear. Earwax naturally occurs in order to protect our ears. It is a water repellent film that is slightly acidic in order to fight off unwanted bacteria. You can also wear ear plugs when swimming – especially in dirty lake water – to prevent the water from entering the ear at all.
Swimmer’s ear is no fun for anyone. Don’t let it get the best of your summer fun. To schedule an appointment with any of our Board Certified physicians, please call 704-295-3000 or visit goodsenses.com for more information on our services.