Swimmers Ear is an infection of the SKIN that lines the ear canal. That lining is a waxy, water resistant substance that, if broken or saturated, can allow bacteria in and cause an infection. This is different from a middle ear infection, or Otitis Media, that often results from upper respiratory infections. If the ear is wet for too long (hours at a time) the lining of the canal becomes pruny, like our fingers often do, allowing bacteria to move in. It can also be triggered by Eczema or scratches in the ear. Even extreme dryness can have the same effect. Did you know that you can get swimmer’s ear in the desert too?
Who is at Risk? Preschool and school age children have the highest risk over infants and adults. However, anyone can get it, including adults. Those with Eczema, severe acne, or seborrhea are at high risk because of the itching in the ear. In addition, swimming in chlorinated pools presents a higher risk of infection because the chlorine often kills the normally present and protective bacteria in the ear.
Symptoms Pain (often severe), itching, redness and sometimes a clear discharge are most common. It is NOT contagious.
Treatment see a physician as soon as possible because it can be extremely painful. Antibiotic drops and drops for pain may be in order. Oral antibiotics are rarely used for this infection.
Prevention A few drops of rubbing alcohol in each ear, after each swim, are very effective in preventing the infection. Lean to one side, pour a small amount of the alcohol in the ear until it is full. Close off the ear and tilt the head back and forth a few times and then let it drain and towel dry. We recommend carrying a small bottle of alcohol in the swim bag and rinsing out the ears after each swim. Do NOT do this if the swimmer has Pressure Equalization (PE) tubes – it will be painful. Drying the ears with a low setting on a blow dryer at least 6 inches from the ear is best in that case.
Speaking of Ear Tubes…Many assume that the placement of Pressure Equalization (PE) tubes equates to not being able to swim. However, research is indicating that swimming is permissible and ear plugs may not be necessary. If your child has PE tubes, consult your specialist (ENT) for his or her opinion on the matter.
Ear Plugs: Standard ear plugs bought over the counter in retail stores can often INCREASE the risk for swimmer’s ear infections as they often leak and trap the water inside the ear. We do not recommend them.