In my last Doctor’s Note, I wrote about getting kids comfortable in the water and learning how to swim. This time, I thought I should write about a common problem that can occur once kids start spending a lot of time in the water.
Swimmer’s Ear is an infection or inflammation of the skin in the ear canal, outside the ear drum. This is different than a “regular” ear infection, which is an infection in the space inside the ear drum. When water gets into the ear canal (from swimming or bathing) and doesn’t drain properly, it starts to break down the protective barrier of the ear canal’s skin, and provides an ideal environment for bacteria to grow.
When the ear canal becomes infected or inflamed, children will often complain of itching or pain, especially when the ear itself is touched or moved. In these cases, we need to look into the ear to make the diagnosis — things like a “regular” ear infection, trauma/scratches in the ear canal, and foreign objects can also cause similar symptoms, but need to be treated differently.
Because the infection in a swimmer’s ear is outside the ear canal, this type of infection can typically be treated with ear drops. (“Regular” ear infections, being inside the ear canal, need oral antibiotics, because the ear drum prevents drops from getting inside the ear to where the infection occurs.) Occasionally the ear canal will swell due to the infection, and we may need to put a special gauze wick into the ear to help the drops get all the way into the canal. If this happens, we’ll certainly show and explain how it works, and we’ll show you what to do with it when you get home. While the ear is healing, you’ll want to keep it clean and dry until the symptoms have resolved.
The best way to prevent swimmer’s ear is to keep the ear canals dry. If this is a recurring problem for your child, you can buy over-the-counter drops that help dry the ear (Star-Otic, Swim-Ear, Auro-Dri, etc.) or make your own at home — just mix up a small batch of half rubbing alcohol and half white vinegar. Use a drop or two in each ear after swimming, and that can help lessen the risk for developing swimmer’s ear.
Dr. Albert Wolf, the CFO of the practice, taught swim lessons for seven years while in high school and college.
(He was also a three-time Pennsylvania state champion in the 100-yard breast stroke at Bethel Park High School, and the captain of the swim team at Harvard, where he was a 4-time All-American and 4-time Academic All-American. He doesn’t like to brag about those things, but we like to do it for him!)