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Swimmer’s Ear: Reduce the Risk

Swimmer’s ear (medical term otitis externa) is very different from the run-of-the-mill inner ear infection (otitis media). Swimmer’s ear is an infection along the ear canal, when the ear canal remains moist (think swimming)  and creates an ideal environment for bacteria to grow and create an infection. In North America, 98 percent of cases of acute otitis externa are caused by bacteria.1

Lake water is more likely to contain bacteria than a swimming pool, and perhaps that is why I had so many outer ear infections as a child growing up swimming in lakes. According to the American Academy of Family Practitioners, “The acute form of swimmer’s ear has an annual incidence of approximately 1 percent and a lifetime prevalence of 10 percent. 2 3 

My experience with swimmer’s ear

I will never forget the first time I had swimmer’s ear because of the pain!

Mother and child on inner tube in a lake

I was a kid in Ohio, swimming in Lake Erie every day off the shores of Kelley’s Island. We swam in a pack —siblings, cousins and friends—battling on the inner-tubes, jumping off of docks and into quarries. My ears were rarely dry.

One day I woke up and could barely get my shirt over my head without terrible ear pain. My symptoms were textbook. Just touching the outside of my ear sent waves of pain. There is one doctor on the island in the summertime so my father took me to his office, where I got ear drops. I had to swim with my head out of the water for a couple of days.

If you have the correct treatment for swimmer’s ear, the pain should go away in 48 to 72 hours. 

NOTE: One big difference between an inner and outer ear infection is the pain with movement of the ear. Inner ear infections are more of an ache internally but moving the ear does not elicit pain. 

Preventing Swimmer’s Ear

It is important to get proper treatment when there is an infection. But as always with our health, prevention is the best medicine and if you follow my instructions below, you may be able to keep your kids’ ears healthy all summer long!

#1 Keep Ears Dry

Dry the ear canal as thoroughly as possible after swimming or bathing. Use a towel or paper towel to absorb what you can, then tip the head sideways to allow gravity to help drain the rest out. You can use a hair dryer if you have time. Hold it about 8 to 10 inches away from the ear on very low heat.

#2 Use A Preventative Mixture Of  White Vinegar and Rubbing Alcohol

Only use this mixture if the eardrum is intact (do NOT use if your child has ear tubes or a ruptured eardrum), and if you are uncertain, it is much better to be on the safe side and not use this treatment unless you see your pediatrician first. The mixture is 1 part white vinegar to 1 part rubbing alcohol. This helps the ear canal to dry more quickly and may also prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi that can cause swimmer’s ear. Administer about 1/2 to 1 tsp of the mixture into each ear and let it drain back out. Do this after a swim or bathing.

#3 Minimize Ear Wax

If your child is prone to a lot of wax build-up, follow the guidance of your pediatrician to keep the wax at bay. Wax will hold water in the ear canal, and a moist ear canal becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. Do not use Q-tips or any other foreign object to dig out earwax.

Consider Briotech Spray

Briotech Topical Skin Spray

Consider keeping some Briotech Topical Skin Spray on hand. Briotech  is a natural substance made by our white blood cells called hypo chlorous acid. It is safe and natural and has anti-bacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal activity. It was originally developed  for patients who had third degree burns. You can spray it on the open wound and it helps to protect against infection without damaging the tissue. You can just put four or five drops into the ear canal to help prevent swimmer’s ear.

Don’t panic if your child does end up getting swimmer’s ear, but please seek medical care right away. It is essential to be seen by your doctor and have it treated with ear-drops. But, by following the steps outlined above, you should see a decrease in swimmer’s ear, or say goodbye to it forever!

Takeaways

  • Swimmers ear (otitis externa) is an infection of a different type than what we think of as an “ear infection” (otitis media).
  • Swimmers ear can be prevented by:
    • Keeping ears dry
    • Using drops of a mixture of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol
    • Minimizing ear wax
  • If your child gets swimmer’s ear, seek medical care right away.

References

  1. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/1201/p1055.html#afp20121201p1055-b4
  2. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/1201/p1055.html#afp20121201p1055-b1
  3. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/1201/p1055.html#afp20121201p1055-b2

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