Learn the causes and signs of this common ear infection -- and how to prevent or treat it.
Swimmer's ear is a bacterial infection of the ear that's particularly common in kids who spend a lot of time in the water. It results in about 2.4 million health-care visits each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Swimmer's ear, called otitis externa by doctors, owes its name to the moisture left in the ear canals after swimming, says Anne Oyler, Au.D., associate director for audiology professional practices for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). "Moisture creates the perfect environment for bacteria to grow," she says. It's particularly easy to get swimmer's ear from water that contains a lot of bacteria, such as the water in a lake.
There are other ways your child can get swimmer's ear, such as through a scratch on the tender skin of the ear from cleaning too vigorously with cotton swabs or fingernails. Your child can also get swimmer's ear from earplugs, headphones, or ear molds for hearing aids -- anything that keeps the ear canals closed and unventilated for extended periods of time.
"Keep everything your child wears in or on the ears exceptionally clean," says Dr. Oyler.
The infection becomes a lot more painful as it progresses, so take your child to your health-care provider as soon as you notice any of the warning signs that the CDC lists:
- Achiness inside the ear
- Pus draining from the ear
- Pain or discomfort when touching the ear
At your visit, your doctor will remove any wax or debris from the ear canal and check for a perforation or hole in your child's eardrum. If you catch it early enough, swimmer's ear can be treated with eardrops, says Dr. Oyler.
But drops aren't effective if the infection has progressed to the middle ear behind the eardrum. In that case, your doctor will prescribe oral antibiotics.
If the ear canal is really swollen, your doctor may insert a cotton wick into your child's ear so that it absorbs the medicine and reaches the infection.
If the infection has progressed to the point where it's very painful, your doctor may recommend a pain reliever, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, in addition to the antibiotics.
ASHA lays out some specific steps to prevent the discomfort of swimmer's ear:
- Keep your child's ear canals dry.
- Carefully dry your child's ears after bathing or swimming. Tilt the head parallel to the ground and gently pull on the earlobe to straighten the ear canal and let the water drain.
- Children who are prone to swimmer's ear or who swim regularly might benefit from custom swim plugs. An audiologist can make and precisely fit a set of plugs to your child's ears to block water.
- You can gently clean the outside of the ears using soft cotton swabs, but avoid poking anything deep into the ear canal, which can damage its soft skin.
- Remember: Earwax is normal and healthy for ear canals. It contains natural antibacterial properties that inhibit bacterial growth. The amount is only a problem when it obstructs the ear canal.
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