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Treating a Sign of Summer: Swimmer’s Ear

This summer’s string of scorching hot days makes swimming in a pool or lake even more inviting. While swimming is a great way to cool off, kids who spend a lot of time in the water, especially underwater, can experience inflammation of the outer ear and ear canal – medically referred to as otitis externa, but more commonly known as “swimmer’s ear.”

Unlike middle ear infections (otitis media) that occur internally behind the eardrum, swimmer’s ear affects the outer parts of the ear. The ear canal and outer ear can become painful and inflamed, usually from irritants such as water, cotton swabs and other foreign objects, or from scratching too hard. With swimmer’s ear, the most common symptom is pain, although itching and redness may also occur. One way to tell if the pain is due to swimmer’s ear is to wiggle or pull on the ear. If this causes pain, it’s likely swimmer’s ear; if not, it could be a middle ear infection.

If your child has swimmer’s ear, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotic ear drops with a steroid to be applied several times a day. The pain should subside quickly, but swimming is generally discouraged while using the drops.

Some children (and adults) are more prone to swimmer’s ear than others. Keeping the ears as dry as possible will help prevent the condition. Tilting the head and drying ears with a towel after swimming is a good way to avoid water from becoming trapped in the ear. Drying ears with a hair dryer on the coolest setting also works. For children experiencing frequent cases of swimmer’s ear, a swim cap, ear plugs or over-the-counter ear drying drops are often helpful. (Ear plugs should be used carefully, as they can irritate the outer ear and contribute to the problem.)  

For general ear care, refrain from clearing the ear wax from ears. The wax provides a natural protective barrier and helps prevent infection. The only time a doctor will remove ear wax is to see the middle ear and check for infection. 

Find out more at Indiana University Health Pediatrics.

POSTED: 08/21/2012
CATEGORIES: Everyday WellnessPlay and ExerciseFamily CarePrimary Care
TAGS: kidsearchildrenhealth tips

Author of this article

Jennifer Jones, MD, specializes in pediatrics. She graduated from Indiana University School of Medicine and completed both her internship and residency at Indiana University Medical Center.

Dr. Jones is a guest columnist and her office is located at IU Health Physicians Pediatrics, 1650 W. Oak St., Ste. 210, in Zionsville. She can be reached by calling the office at 317.873.8855.

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