Four Things to Know About Swimmer's Ear

Author

Dr. Sarah McSweeney-Ryan, Pediatric Hospitalist, South Shore Hospital

Sarah McSweeney-Ryan, MD

Summer on the South Shore means plenty of swimming, whether it’s in pools, lakes, or the ocean. Swimming is a great way to cool off on a hot day and to get a little exercise, all while being outside and enjoying the best weather of the year.

For many South Shore parents, however, a day in the water this summer could leave a child with an earache.

Swimmer’s ear is a common summer ailment for children and is as familiar to parents as sunburns and mosquito bites. Also known as otitis externa, swimmer’s ear can be painful — but it doesn’t have to derail your summer plans!

Here’s what you need to know before you and your children hit the water.

1. What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear, at the most basic level, is simply a type of ear infection. Unlike the inner ear infections that are common in babies, toddlers, and young children, swimmer’s ear is an outer ear infection: it affects the outer ear canal, which runs from the outside of your ear to your eardrum.

While infections can occur for any number of reasons, swimmer’s ear is caused by an excess amount of moisture remaining in the ear canal.

Because the ear canal is dark, any build-up of moisture is going to promote the growth of bacteria.

Once bacteria start to grow, the ear canal becomes inflamed, leading to pain and discomfort. While swimmer’s ear is most common in children, adults can get it as well.

2. How do you get swimmer’s ear?

The easy answer is “by swimming!” Of course it’s not quite that simple, as just being in the water isn’t necessarily going to lead to swimmer’s ear for everyone. You can also get swimmer’s ear without swimming.

Too much moisture in the ear is the root cause of swimmer’s ear, but there are other factors as well. Some children may be predisposed to swimmer’s ear due to the way their ear canals are shaped, making it more difficult for water to drain out.

The type of water matters as well: swimming in ponds, lakes, or poorly treated pools may increase exposure to bacteria, raising the risk of swimmer’s ear.

Finally, the wax in your ears serves as a way to prevent moisture from building up inside. People who keep their ears a little too clean, especially those who regularly use cotton swabs, may actually be increasing their chances of contracting swimmer’s ear.

3. How do you prevent swimmer’s ear?

We can’t just keep kids out of the water, especially during summertime in New England! Instead, preventing swimmer’s ear starts with taking steps to keep moisture from building up inside the ear canals.

  • Encourage your children to thoroughly dry their ears after they get out of the water.
  • Have your kids tilt their heads to each side to allow any trapped water to flow out. Gently tugging on the ear in various directions can help ensure all water is out.
  • Avoid swimming in untreated water or at beaches where the bacteria count is high.

 

If you find that your child is particularly susceptible to swimmer’s ear, waterproof ear plugs are always an option. While it may take some time for your child to remember to use them before swimming, they do a good job keeping ear canals dry.

4. How do you treat swimmer’s ear?

If you suspect a case of swimmer’s ear (whether in your child or yourself), it’s always a good idea to contact your primary care provider. Your provider will be able to confirm that it’s swimmer’s ear and not a potentially more serious infection. Your provider will also know which kind of treatment is appropriate.

Normally, swimmer’s ear is treated with special ear drops that help fight off the infection. Ibuprofen or another over-the-counter pain reliever can be used to get some relief from the ear pain as well. With the proper medication, swimmer’s ear should be resolved within a week or so.

One thing that you should absolutely never do with a suspected case of swimmer’s ear is ignore it. While swimmer’s ear is relatively easy to treat in normal cases, ignoring it gives the infection a chance to spread and potentially become more serious.

 

Dr. McSweeney-Ryan practices at South Shore Medical Center in Norwell and is currently accepting new patients. Learn more about Primary Care at South Shore Health.