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Swimmer’s ear is a common type of ear infection that strikes people of all ages.

What is swimmer’s ear?

Swimmer’s ear is a unique type of ear infection that flares up after a child has gone swimming. It’s official name is acute otitis externa, and it affects roughly 2.4 million Americans each year.

What causes swimmer’s ear?

This condition is typically caused by extended swimming, especially when this involves submersion underwater. As a child submerges, water gets into the ear canal, allowing bacteria to flourish and multiply. Diving or swimming to the bottom can make an infection more likely, since the increased water pressure at deeper depths can drive water further into the ear and keep it there for longer.

However, even just showering, excessive sweating or lingering in 90-degree heat can soften the skin of the ear canal, setting the stage for infection. Children and adults with excessive ear wax or who suffer from eczema are more prone to the condition, as are those who use hearing aids.

Signs & symptoms of swimmer’s ear

The most common indicator is that a child will complain of ear pain after spending a day in the pool. While less serious than middle or inner ear infections, swimmers ear can be much more painful, since it can influence the skin within the ear canal. You might also see young children pull or grab at their earlobes. A child may also experience symptoms like an echoing in their ear or an itchy or clogged sensation around their ear. It can strike in as little as a few hours after swimming (bacteria multiply quickly) but typically develops within the first 24 hours.

Treating swimmer’s ear

Unlike typical ear infections, which create inflammation behind the eardrum, swimmer’s ear can usually be treated with antibacterial eardrops and will usually clear up within a week. You should not try to treat it with oral antibiotics, since this is like carpet-bombing all of California to try and stop a gang in South Central Los Angeles. Plus, most oral antibiotics don’t even kill the type of bacteria that usually cause swimmer’s ear. Though the infection usually gets better all on its own, left untreated, swimmer’s ear can escalate to severe pain and sometimes cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection that will require oral antibiotics.

How to prevent ear infections when your child swims

To guard against swimmer’s ear, dry your child’s ears after swimming: tilt their head to the side and tug each earlobe in a clockwise circle to drain any water out. Dr. Alan Greene recommends applying a few drops of hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, or apple cider vinegar to protect against swimmer’s ear without antibiotics.

“I like alternating any two of the three,” he says, “applying enough to coat the ear canal three or four times a day.” (Greene, 2013) Other doctors suggest mixing half vinegar and half rubbing alcohol, then putting a few drops into each ear. These remedies should guard against a buildup of bacteria.

Other techniques you might try involve cupping your ear with the palm of your hand and pumping inward, or having a child hop on one leg with the water filled ear tilted to the ground. Chewing gum also helps. “These actions may create a pressure change and draw the water out,” says professor Richard Rosenfeld, lead author of the clinical-practice guidelines for treating the condition. (Mitchell, 7-30-2013)

DO NOT try to clean your child’s ear with a Q-tip or cotton swab. Not only can this potentially injure their eardrum, it tends to push bacteria farther into the ear canal, making any potential infection worse.

Having your child use ear plugs while swimming can also reduce the risk. And the less they dive to the bottom, the better.

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