This summer, kids will spend lots of time in the pool and playing in the ocean. If you’re a parent, you may be all too familiar with the pain and discomfort in your child’s ears after a long weekend of swimming. Depending on your child’s age, the symptoms they exhibit may vary, but the result is the same: pain, inflammation and even infection can set in. By being informed of the causes, prevention and treatment options, you can hopefully reduce the chance of having to deal with swimmer’s ear.
Swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, is a painful inflammation and infection of the ear canal. While anyone can get otitis externa from a variety of causes, it is most often seen in children and caused by water getting in the ear from activities such as swimming- hence the name. Unfortunately, once someone has had swimmer’s ear, they are likely to get it again.
Signs and Symptoms
The main symptom of swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, is ear pain. It can be quite severe and usually gets worse when the outer part of the ear is pulled or pressed; it may also be painful when chewing. For children, swelling of the ear canal might make them complain of a full feeling or discomfort in the ear. The outer part of the ear may become red or swollen, and the lymph nodes around the ear could become large and possibly tender. There could also be drainage of clear, odorless fluid.
If left untreated symptoms could get worse, resulting in temporary hearing loss. This is caused by pus and debris or swelling of the canal which blocks the passage of sound into the ear.
Causes of Swimmer’s Ear
Swimmer’s ear can occur when water, sand, dirt, or other common debris gets inside the ear canal. Other possible causes include:
- A very narrow or hairy ear canal
- Bubble baths, soaps, and shampoos that get in the ear canal
- Earwax stuck in the ear canal (impacted) due to use of cotton swabs that may push the earwax deeper into the ear canal
- Exostoses, or bony overgrowths in the ear canal
- Headphones or hearing aids inserted into the ear
- Scratching the ear canal with a cotton swab, bobby pin, fingernail, or other sharp object
- Skin problems, such as eczema, psoriasis, or seborrhea
Preventing Swimmer’s Ear
Follow these suggestions to prevent swimmer’s ear.
- Always dry the ears well, tilting the head to both sides to drain water from the ear canal after water activities such as swimming or bath time.
- Use over-the-counter ear drops that contain acetic acid or alcohol, which help prevent infection when used after swimming. Only use if the eardrums are still intact.
- Do not put objects into ears or attempt to clean them, including cotton-tipped swabs.
Treating Swimmer’s Ear
Since otitis externa is an infection in a hard to reach and delicate place, it should be treated by a doctor. Place a warm washcloth or heating pad against the affected ear and use Acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease discomfort until seeing the doctor. Wear a shower cap while showering or bathing to prevent more water getting in the ear. Your doctor may also recommend earplugs for water activities.
Jacksonville Speech & Hearing Center wants to make sure you get the facts about swimmer’s ear so you and your family can have a safe and healthy summer. Swimmer’s ear can be very painful, and sometimes even serious. If you suspect swimmer’s ear, get it checked out and treated by a doctor.
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