Louisville Family ENT Explains How to Prevent and Treat Swimmer’s Ear

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Signs are everywhere. The smell of fresh-cut spring grass wafts through the open window, birds awaken us before the alarm, and another Kentucky Derby is in the books:  summer is right around the corner and the kids are ready to hit the water.  

As an ENT physician, one of the most troubling childhood conditions I treat during the warm months is also one of the most common:  swimmer's ear or otitis externa.  I say troubling because nothing can bring down a great day at the lake or around the pool like a child in tears holding an ear--the same child that seemed only hours before to be the life of the party.  The symptoms of swimmer's ear can come on quickly, and the main issue is pain--it hurts!!

Swimmer's ear affects the tunnel which carries sound from the outer world to the eardrum.  The rigid structure of the tunnel is made of bone closest to the eardrum and cartilage in the more outer part.  The tunnel is lined by skin.  The skin of the ear canal is naturally protected by ear wax and oils which repel water and other irritants.  Any breakdown in this protective system can potentially allow bacteria to invade the skin and lead to infection.  

How do I know if my child has a swimmer's ear?  Redness and moisture at the canal opening in an ear that hurts when touched or pulled is highly suggestive of the diagnosis and will need medical attention.  Your pediatrician or family physician will usually prescribe antibiotic drops combined with a mild steroid to ease the inflammation and treat the infection.  If the infection is severe, you may need to see an ENT physician who can gently clean the ear canal  or place a small wick to help the medicine get into the ear.  Tylenol or Ibuprofen is usually recommended for discomfort and with proper treatment the symptoms can improve within 24 hours.

Can I protect my child from swimmer's ear?   Not entirely but several things are helpful:  don't clean your child's ear with cotton swabs; discourage your child from rubbing or scratching in the ear canal;  never use an object to clean the ear such as bobby pin or key.  And, oh yeh, that slightly green condo pool with the weird odor, stay away.  If it looks bad it probably is.

A simple swim drop to keep in your beach or pool bag can be made at home:  equal parts white vinegar and rubbing b2ap3_thumbnail_ent.jpgalcohol.  Two drops to each ear after a day of swimming can help eliminate moisture and protect against bacteria and fungus.  IMPORTANT:  if your child has ear tubes or a hole in the eardrum, this drop should not be used.
~Dr. Bryan Murphy

Dr. Bryan Murphy is a board-certified otolaryngologist with Louisville Family ENT. To learn more about the practice visit louisvillefamilyent.com.
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