Swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, can be contracted at any time during the year, but the heat, humidity and extra moisture of summer and pool activities make it more likely to occur in the summertime.
Otitis simply means an inflammation of the ear. An inflamed ear canal is called otitis externa. The canal ends at the eardrum. Inflammation beyond the eardrum, in the middle ear, is called otitis media. Otitis media is the infection that plagues many younger children and in a number of cases necessitates tubes in the ears.
Swimmer’s ear is usually an infection caused by a bacteria or a fungus. These germs like dark, moist and warm places to grow. Earwax, or cerumen, is acidic and contains defensive enzymes that prevent certain germs from growing. It coats the ear canal and protects it from trauma.
If water removes too much of the wax or remains in the ear canal, it can set up an environment favorable for germ growth. Putting things in your ear canal to clean it out can damage the skin and can promote infection, as well. Some conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis, may predispose some individuals to infection by irritating the skin surface.
The symptoms of external otitis are usually pain and possibly drainage. The pain might be worse with movement of the ear or with chewing. The ear may feel plugged up or hearing may be decreased. The ear canal can appear red and inflamed.
Your doctor will usually look in the ear to see if the canal is inflamed. The eardrum is also examined to make sure there are no signs of middle ear infection. Drops are usually prescribed to cure the infection. These usually contain antibiotics and maybe an anti-inflammatory medicine.
Be sure to use the medication as prescribed to eliminate the infection entirely. Rolling the bottle of medication in your hands prior to instilling the drops will help to warm the medication; this prevents the feeling of dropping cold water in the ear. Moving the earlobe back and forth after instilling the drops will help the medicine to get deeper into the canal.
Swimmer’s ear can be very painful. Your doctor may also prescribe pain-relieving drops for the ear. Additionally, an oral pain reliever, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, may be beneficial.
There are many things that can be done to prevent swimmer’s ear. First of all, don’t put anything in your ear that’s bigger than your elbow. Fingers and even cotton swabs can damage the canal lining. Secondly, leave the wax alone. It’s there for a purpose. If you think wax is impairing your hearing or you feel that you have something in your ear canal, have your doctor check it out.
When water gets into the ear, as with swimming, bathing or showering, there are several methods to help dry it out. A hair dryer used on a low heat/low velocity setting can assist in drying an ear. A few drops of isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) or a 50/50 mixture of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol instilled as a few drops after swimming may help to prevent swimmer’s ear by drying the canal.
The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.