What to do about swimmer’s ear

For many, swimming pools are as synonymous with summer as sunshine and lemonade. Yet, hours in the pool can bring on water-related health concerns, including swimmer’s ear.

Otitis externa, commonly referred as swimmer’s ear, is an infection of the ear canal typically caused by an overgrowth of bacteria. Moisture in the ear can irritate the ear canal, allowing bacteria to penetrate below the skin surface.

The condition leads to 2.4 million health care visits yearly, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study also showed visits are highest among children ages 5 to 14.

Lesa Sutton-Davis, M.D., a pediatrician with Norton Children’s Hospital Medical Associates – Fairdale, sees that trend in her office as well and said there are many reasons why children get swimmer’s ear.

Factors include heavy earwax buildup, the amount of time in the water and the size of a child’s ear canal. In addition, scratching the inside of the ear with a finger or object, or even wearing headphones can cause small breaks in the skin that allow bacteria to grow.

Prevention of swimmer’s ear is key for avoiding a trip to the doctor. After spending time in the water, make sure your child gently dries both ears with a towel.

Dr. Sutton-Davis cautions that parents avoid using cotton-tipped swabs for cleaning.

“Using Q-Tips and other cleaning methods actually ends up traumatizing the ear and can lead to serious complications,” Dr. Sutton-Davis said.

Instead, Dr. Sutton-Davis recommends removing wax buildup by applying a home remedy of equal parts hydrogen peroxide and warm water, using an eyedropper.

For children with ear tubes, it is best to have them to wear earplugs while in the pool.

Though swimming is the most common cause, children can also develop swimmer’s ear from an allergy to specific soaps and shampoos.

If it doesn’t resolve, Dr. Sutton-Davis urges that parents bring their children to see a pediatrician to determine which type of infection is present. The most common treatment are prescription antibiotic ear drops but severe cases might require an oral antibiotic.

“If left untreated, swimmer’s ear can get worse and harder to treat,” she said. “The faster we can look at it, the quicker children can return to the pool.”


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