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St. Vincent Q & A

Avoid the Splash of Swimmer's Ear

A Doctor's Advice

May 01, 2011
With the start of swim season right around the corner, it's important for parents to be familiar with a common ailment facing many Kids: swimmer's ear.

Swimmer's ear, also called otitis externa, is an infection of the ear canal. But it is different from a regular ear infection. In fact, it's worse—pain-wise.

"With swimmer's ear, the whole ear and the area surrounding it are sensitive," according to Dr. Ronda Hamaker, M.D., a pediatric ENT at Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent. "Just brushing up against the ear, not even looking inside, can make a child scream out in pain."

Washing away wax

Swimmer's ear happens when bacteria grow in the ear canal, which is basically an area of delicate skin that's protected by earwax. Most of the time, water can run in and out of the ear canal without causing a problem.

However, when water stays in the ear canal, it washes away the protective coating of earwax and makes the ear canal more susceptible to bacteria growth. If swimmer's ear results, the ear canal becomes red and swollen, which is evidence of irritation, inflammation and infection.

Not surprisingly, a lot of swimming can wash away earwax and cause more wetness in the ear canal. But sometimes children can get swimmer's ear without even diving in the pool.

"While not as common, swimmer's ear can also result from sweating, showers or a really humid environment—anything that causes moisture in the ear canal," Hamaker explains. A scratch or other irritation to the ear canal can also lead to swimmer's ear.

Preventing it before it starts

There are some things kids and parents can do to prevent swimmer's ear.

• Dry ears with a towel after swimming

• Use a blow dryer – very low heat and low air pressure – to gently blow out and evaporate out any water

• Put drops of rubbing alcohol in the ears to evaporate any water, but only if there is no perforation in the ear drum

Toweling up for treatment

How do you know if your child has swimmer's ear?

It's often very obvious because the ear is so tender to touch and results in immediate pain.

"That pain can sometimes radiate into the face or neck as well," says Hamaker. "Plus, your child may feel like their ear is blocked, and there may be drainage or a fever."

Swimmer's ear is typically treated with eardrops that contain an antibiotic to kill the bacteria—as well as anti-inflammatory if the pain is very troublesome. And, in the cases where the ear is extremely swollen, Hamaker says she uses what's called a wick. A wick is a tiny sponge the doctor inserts in the ear. The medicine goes into the wick, or sponge, so it can keep in contact with the infected part of the ear canal.

The good news is that, once treated, swimmer's ear generally clears up within days. And your little guppy will be off swimming again before you know it.

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Dr. Hamaker is a pediatric otolaryngologist with the Pediatric Ear, Nose and Throat Center at Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St.Vincent. Most patients are referred to Dr Hamaker by their child's primary care physician; however, if you are concerned about your child's ears or hearing, you can schedule an appointment with her by calling 317-338-6815.

Tags: In This Issue, Health, Kids, Parenting

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