‘Ear This: Ways to Combat Swimmer’s Ear

Nothing seems to take the fun out of summer more than when a child complains of an ear ache during the family's vacation at the beach.  This week, let me lend everyone an ear and a few tips on something we call swimmer's ear.

While most ear infections during the winter are usually caused as a complication of a cold, swimmers ear – or otitis externa – is usually the result of your child spending a lot of time in pools, lakes, and water parks during the summer.  Swimmer’s ear occurs when the ear canal is constantly exposed to water and heat, two conditions that will cause the ear canal to become soggy, and set up an ideal environment for bacteria to grow in the ear canal.  Initially the ear may seem plugged, but within a day or two it becomes quite painful especially when the earlobe is touched even gently—which is a sure sign of a swimmer’s ear.

A simple home remedy for treatment, especially if you are away from your doctor’s office, involves creating a mixture of equal parts rubbing alcohol and vinegar.  Insert a few drops of this mixture into the painful ear.  It will help clean out debris, dry the ear, and kill bacteria.  If the pain only worsens with these drops, please have a doctor check the ear out.  

Your pediatrician may recommend some antibiotic ear drops if the home remedy doesn't work, and some medication like acetaminophen to treat the pain.  No matter whether you try the alcohol/vinegar drops or a prescription medication, your child will need to stay out of the water for 5-7 days – something that is more easily said than done so prevention is key!

If you want to prevent swimmer’s ear from occurring, make sure you insist on mandatory ear drying every 1-2 hours that your child is in the water, using the corner of a soft towel to dry up the moisture that may have gotten into their ears.  Ear plugs can also keep the moisture out.

Hopefully you will not find tips like this to be painful ones when it comes to knowing a little bit more about how to handle swimmer's ear this summer. 

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at http://www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids.