How to prevent, treat swimmer's ear

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PHOENIX – Now that the weather has warmed up, chances are kids are spending more and more time in the swimming pool. That means they’re at a greater risk for otitis externa, which is a fancy Latin name for what you probably know as swimmer’s ear.

As Dr. Art Mollen explained to Kaley O’Kelley, swimmer’s ear is an infection in the outer ear canal. The most common cause is water that stays in the ear after swimming. The water creates the moist environment that bacteria thrive in.

Another common cause is damage to the thin layer of skin that lines the ear canal. Fingers, cotton swabs and other objects placed in the ear usually are to blame for that damage. People who are aggressive in attempting to clean their ears with cotton swabs, for example, often do more harm than good.

You've probably heard the phrase, "Don't put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear." Mollen says that's excellent advice.

When it comes to swimming, a simple home remedy – 50 percent rubbing alcohol and 50 percent white vinegar – can help prevent the dreaded, often painful infection. Use this solution to clean out the ears both before and after swimming, Mollen suggested. The solution will change the acidity of the ear, making it a less friendly environment for bacteria.

Mild symptoms of swimmer’s ear include itching the ear canal, redness inside the ear, discomfort that’s made worse by pulling on the outer ear and some drainage of clear fluid.

Intense itching, increased pain, excessive fluid drainage, discharge of pus, a feeling of fullness in the ear and decreased or muffled hears can all signify a more serious infection.

At its worse, swimmer’s ear can cause severe pain that radiates to your face, neck or the side of your head, complete blockage of the ear canal, redness and/or swelling of the outer ear, swelling of the lymph nodes in your neck and fever.

If left untreated, swimmer’s ear can lead to some serious complications, including temporary hearing loss, long-term infection, deep-tissue infection, bone and cartilage damage or even widespread infection, which, if it attacks the brain or nearby nerves, can be life-threatening.

“You have to be careful that this external infection doesn’t become an otitis media [or labyrinthitis], meaning the inner ear,” Mollen explained.

If the infection makes it ways into the middle and inner ear, you run the risk of a ruptured eardrum.

When it comes to swimmer’s ear, the best defense is a good offense. Prevention is not only key, it’s easy. With that in mind, Mollen also suggested using silicon earplugs as a method of prevention. He said he uses them himself to keep water out of his ears. Silicon earplugs are available at most drug stores.

A swim cap can also be helpful.

According to Mollen, combining the swim cap or earplugs with the white vinegar/rubbing alcohol solution can go a long way in preventing swimmer’s ear.

Once an infection develops, the best this you can do is contact your doctor.

“Treating these ear infections might need antibiotics,” Mollen said.

Even if the symptoms are mild, do not try to clean out your ear (or your child’s ear) with a cotton swap as that can push wax further into the ear and make the problem worse.

A warm washcloth or heating pad can help ease the discomfort and a blow-dryer on a low setting can help dry the ear, but you need to be careful not to burn yourself or your child.