Don’t be wet behind the ears when it comes to swimmer’s ear

My child just started swimming lessons at her summer camp, and I’m worried about something called swimmer’s ear. What is swimmer’s ear, and how do I know if she has it? Is it preventable?

Every child who will be swimming this summer can get swimmer’s ear, but luckily, the treatment is usually very simple, and the prevention even simpler.

Swimmer’s ear is an infection in the outer ear canal, which runs from the eardrum to the outside of the head.

The ear has natural defenses, like cerumen, a waxy, secreted substance that is waterproof and slightly acidic to prevent bacterial growth. Cerumen also collects dirt and dead skin cells and ushers them out of the ear (the result of which is earwax). However, when swimming, the natural defenses are overwhelmed with the continuous influx of water, and any moisture that remains in the ear after swimming can provide a favorable environment for bacteria to grow.

Signs and symptoms of swimmer’s ear can be itching of the ear canal, slight redness in the child’s ear, and pain when the ear is pulled or the tragus (the “bump” in the center of the ear) is pushed. The longer the infection is left untreated, the more painful the ear will be to the touch, and the more likely the child is to have severe blockage of the ear canal and fever. It is best to contact your pediatrician at the first signs of swimmer’s ear.

If your child is suffering from an infection, your doctor will prescribe ear drops with antibiotics and/or a topical non-inflammatory steroid to keep down swelling.

In severe cases, where the ear canal is completely blocked and the prescription ear drops are not being absorbed, the doctor may insert a wick made of cotton or gauze to promote drainage and help draw medication into the ear canal.

The swelling and pain will usually subside 24 to 48 hours after beginning to medicate with the drops. If this isn’t the case, then oral medications can be prescribed. Make sure your child doesn’t swim underwater until the infection has completely cleared.

The good news: yes, swimmer’s ear is completely preventable with easy-to-use and inexpensive homemade ear drops. Mix one part rubbing alcohol with one part white vinegar, and put a couple of drops in your child’s ears after he goes swimming. This mixture will dry out the ear, help kill germs, and, most importantly, let your child keep having fun in the pool!

An alternative prevention method is to have your child wear earplugs, although they can sometimes irritate the ear canal. It’s best to do what your child is most comfortable with.

Happy swimming!