This upcoming holiday weekend is sure to be filled with fun in the sun. For many families this includes a trip to the swimming pool or lake. But the fun stops when someone starts complaining of ear pain. Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, is a very common medical problem resulting in an estimated 2.4 million health care visits in the United States each year. It is more common in children but can affect people of all ages. Let’s review the causes, treatments and methods of prevention of swimmer’s ear so that you and your family can enjoy the water without the worry.
Causes: Swimmer’s ear is caused by water sitting in the external ear canal. This wetness can lead to the growth of bacteria which then causes drainage, redness, swelling and pain.
Symptoms: Typically the pain is made worse by movement of the outer ear and may be severe. A doctor will be able to diagnose swimmer’s ear based on history and physical exam. A history of swimming (or any activity in which water gets into the ears) a few days prior to the development of symptoms, along with pain with movement of the ear, swelling and irritation of the ear canal, and drainage of pus seen with an otoscope are all consistent with a diagnosis of swimmer’s ear.
Treatment: Treatment is generally with antibiotic drops that are placed directly into the ear canal. If the swelling of the ear canal is severe, a wick may need to be placed in order to keep the ear canal open and effectively deliver the antibiotic drops to the affected area. With proper treatment, most infections clear up in 7-10 days.
Difference Between Swimmer’s Ear and Infections: Many people ask about the difference between swimmer’s ear and the classic “ear infection”. An ear infection, also known as acute otitis media, is an infection of the middle ear space or the space in the ear that is directly behind the ear drum. This type of infection is more common in young children and often develops after an upper respiratory infection. Because the middle ear space is in contact with the ear drum, the ear drum is often red and bulging when the doctor looks into the ear with an otoscope and the middle ear space is often filled with pus. This type of infection often requires treatment with systemic antibiotics, typically given by mouth, unless the child has ear tubes that have been surgically placed.
Prevention: For people who have had swimmer’s ear or seem to be prone to getting it, there are many effective ways to prevent the infection from recurring. The goal is to dry the ear canal while also keeping the skin of the ear canal intact. Avoid using a cotton swab to clean or dry the ear canal as that can damage the skin of the ear canal making it easier for bacteria to enter and infect the skin. Instead, use a towel to gently dry the ear canal. Using a hair dryer on cool and the lowest setting and holding it several inches from the ear can also help to dry any excess water. For people who have an intact ear drum (meaning there is no hole present in the ear drum) instilling a few drops of a mixture of ½ rubbing alcohol and ½ white vinegar can help dry the ear canal. Wearing ear plugs during swimming is a great way to prevent water from entering the ear canal in the first place.
Need more info? If you think you or a family member might have swimmer’s ear, contact your health care provider to discuss treatment options and further prevention methods. Have a happy and healthy holiday weekend!