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On Call: Summertime Earache

Q. Now that my kids are learning to swim, is it likely they'll get ear infections from being in the water?

 


A. "Swimmer's ear" (otitis externa) is an infection of the ear canal  -- as opposed to a middle ear infection, which occurs behind the eardrum. Though anyone who spends time in the water can get an infection, it doesn't mean that your kids necessarily will (no one in my family has, and we're avid swimmers).

They're most likely to get one if they're in bacteria-infested water  -- poorly chlorinated pools can breed germs that cause the infection  -- or if there's a scratch or an irritation in the ear canal that creates a place for germs to enter (one reason putting anything in the ear, including fingers and ear swabs, is never a good idea). If one of your kids does end up with swimmer's ear, you'll likely know if he complains of one or more of these symptoms:

  • ear pain (especially if even lightly pulling the earlobe hurts him)
  • itchiness inside the ear
  • the sensation that the ear is blocked
  • puslike liquid coming out of the ear (though this is less common).

Then your child should see the doctor, who'll be able to diagnose it for sure by looking for inflammation inside the ear canal. If he has swimmer's ear, antibiotic drops will be prescribed and the pain should subside within a day or two (but make sure you give him the full course of the treatment, usually for about a week).

When he's better, keeping the ear dry by using earplugs when he's swimming is the best way to prevent another infection. Look for those especially made to keep water out (silicone plugs are a good choice). If your child has recurrent swimmer's-ear infections, you might consider seeing an otolaryngologist (an "ear, nose, and throat," or "ENT," doctor) for plugs specifically shaped to fit his ears. They're usually given for little or no charge.

And to be extra cautious, after he gets home from a day at the beach or the pool, dry his ears with a hair dryer on its coolest setting or put a few drops of rubbing alcohol in them (which helps to get rid of both bacteria and excess water).

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