While on vacation, my son started complaining about his ears hurting when I put on his shirt. At first I just thought it was him being a typical 4 year-old, but it caught my attention when it really seemed to bother him when I bumped his ear while brushing his hair and then later when giving him a hug. Turns out my son had developed swimmer’s ear after having spent several days in the pool.
Swimmer’s ear is a common summer occurrence, but can occur year round even in people who do not swim. It is also called otitis externa because it is inflammation of the external ear canal. The inflammation can be caused by a number of things, but is most commonly caused by water in the ear canal that causes skin breakdown. The loss of skin integrity allows bacteria or fungus to enter the skin and cause inflammation. Other things that can cause skin breakdown and lead to otitis externa are using Q-tips, a foreign body in the ear canal, hearing aid, a rash that extends into the canal or drainage from a perforated ear drum.
Children usually complain of itching or pain in the ear. Children may have drainage from the ear as well. It often hurts when either the tragus (the prominence in front of the external opening of the outer ear) or pinna (the largely cartilaginous projecting portion of the external ear) are moved.
Physicians diagnose otitis externa by looking in the ear with an otoscope and by the tenderness elicited with movement of the ear. It is often treated with prescription ear drops. Oral antibiotics are sometimes used if the infection is severe or spread beyond the ear canal. There are over-the-counter ear drops but these will not treat otitis externa that has already developed. The drops should be put in the ear with the child laying on his or her side and remaining there for 3-5 minutes for the medication to have contact with the skin of the canal. The ear canal should be kept as dry as possible during the healing process. Avoid swimming and bathing that would get the canal wet. A cool air blow-dryer can be used if the ear does become wet.
Once a child has had otitis externa, steps should be taken to prevent it in the future. Ear plugs are an option, but sometimes if they enter the canal, they can also cause irritation. Drying the ears after swimming and bathing is important. First dry with a towel. You can again use a cool air blow-dryer. Another option is a couple drops of 70% rubbing alcohol solution or a mixture of ½ alcohol plus ½ vinegar placed in the canal will help dry up any water in the canal.
Enjoy the warm weather while it lasts!