By Lauren Conte
After a long day spent enjoying the public pool, your youngest child runs towards you clutching one of his ears. You calm him down, and after a few moments he tells you that his ear itches, hurts to the touch, and sounds are muffled.
Unsure of how to treat his pain, you book an appointment with your family's doctor. In the meantime, you try to stop your son from shoving his fingers into his ears as the burning pain worsens.
At the appointment, the doctor sees the red inflammation in the ear canal and notes the clear, odorless discharge draining from your child's ears. "Yep," the doctor says, "its Swimmer's Ear."
Well, what exactly is Swimmer's Ear, and how does it occur? Swimmer's Ear (also known as acute otitis externa) is an ear infection caused by bacteria, and though instances are rare, sometimes can occur from viruses or fungi.
Long exposure to contaminated water, such as recreational pools or lakes makes individuals susceptible to infections. The water softens the skin inside the ear and allows bacteria to multiply and cause irritation. When people use their fingers, cotton swabs, or other objects to itch their ears, the softened skin is easily broken, spreading the infection further.
To catch the infection early, some symptoms include:
- Itchiness in the ear canal
- Pain when pushing or pulling on the outer ear
- Clear drainage
- Swelling and redness of the ear
- Sensation of fullness in the ear
- Swollen lymph nodes around the ear, upper neck, and jaw
Treatment options vary, but often your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic or antifungal medication to kill the infection. Your doctor may prescribe a steroid to decrease the inflammation, or an acidic solution to restore the normal pH inside the ear. (When applying the drops, have someone else help you. Also, lie down with the affected ear facing upwards in order to fill the ear completely with medication.) To decrease the pain before and during treatment, over-the-counter pain relievers are effective at helping relieve some of the discomfort in the ears.
Okay, so now we know how it happens and how to treat the infection should it occur, but let's try to avoid getting to that point. Spoiler alert: you don't have to give up the pool, lake, or beach time!
While in the water, keep ears dry by using earplugs or a swim cap.
If that isn't your style, dry the outside of your ears with a towel, drop some drying-aid into each ear, and then tilt your head to the side to help the water drain out.
Pro-Tip: DIY Ear-drying Aid
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon rubbing alcohol
- (Or however much solution you desire, but keep equal parts vinegar and rubbing alcohol)
- Mix solution together and add drops into both ears.
The alcohol in the solution combines with the water and because alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature, pulls the water out with it. The acidity of the vinegar lowers the pH of the ear so bacteria cannot grow. Use this solution each time you leave the water, to ensure that infection does not occur.
Also, never use cotton swabs or fingers to try to remove water from ears. Your fingernails can cut up the inside of your ears, cotton swabs can puncture eardrums, and scrape the ear canal as well. Similarly, do not try to use cotton swabs to remove earwax, as the natural substance protects against infection and waterproofs your ears.
There you have it, the signs to look out for, and the ways to avoid putting a damper on your summer.
Lauren Conte is a Communications Intern for Eosera, a biotechnology consumer products company.