Signs are everywhere. The smell of fresh-cut spring grass wafts through the open window, birds awaken us before the alarm, and another Kentucky Derby is in the books: summer is right around the corner and the kids are ready to hit the water.
As an ENT physician, one of the most troubling childhood conditions I treat during the warm months is also one of the most common: swimmer's ear or otitis externa. I say troubling because nothing brings down a great day at the lake or around the pool like a child in tears holding an ear – the same child that was the life of the party only hours before. The symptoms of swimmer's ear can come on quickly, and the main issue is pain – it hurts!
Swimmer's ear affects the tunnel which carries sound from the outer world to the eardrum. The rigid structure of the tunnel is made of the bone closest to the eardrum, and cartilage in the more outer part. The tunnel is lined by skin. The skin of the ear canal is naturally protected by earwax and oils, which repel water and other irritants. Any breakdown in this protective system can potentially allow bacteria to invade the skin and lead to infection.
How do you know if your child has swimmer's ear?
If an ear hurts when touched or pulled, and has redness and moisture at the canal opening, this is highly suggestive of the diagnosis and will need medical attention.Your pediatrician or family physician will usually prescribe antibiotic drops combined with a mild steroid to ease the inflammation and treat the infection. If the infection is severe, you may need to see an ENT physician who can gently clean the ear canal or place a small wick to help the medicine get into the ear. Tylenol or Ibuprofen is usually recommended for discomfort. With proper treatment the symptoms can improve within 24 hours.
Can I protect my child from swimmer's ear?
Not entirely but several things are helpful: don't clean your child's ear with cotton swabs; discourage your child from rubbing or scratching in the ear canal; never use an object to clean the ear such as bobby pin or key. And, oh yeah, that slightly green condo pool with the weird odor: stay away. If it looks bad it probably is.
A simple swim drop to keep in your beach or pool bag can be made at home with equal parts white vinegar and rubbing alcohol. Two drops to each ear after a day of swimming can help eliminate moisture and protect against bacteria and fungus.
IMPORTANT: if your child has ear tubes or a hole in the eardrum, this drop should not be used.
Hopefully with these tips and a little common sense, you and your children can enjoy a water-soaked Kentucky summer without a painful ear.