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The Informed Parent

Swimmer’s Ear

by Peter W. Welty, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Oct. 01, 1998

During the summer months many parents have questions about swimmer's ear. This article will hopefully inform our parent readers about this frequent problem.

Swimmer's ear is a common superficial infection of the ear canal, one of several types of ear canal problems. This particular infection begins when the waxy, water-repellant protective layer of the ear canal is lost. Bacteria can then invade the canal lining. This protective layer can be lost by excessive wetness, as in swimming or bathing, leading to swimmer's ear. Or it can develop excessive dryness or trauma from foreign bodies which can lead to other types of external otitis. The bacteria most commonly responsible is Pseudomonas, although other organisms can be seen. Swimmer's ear is not contagious from child to child.

The predominant symptom is ear pain, notably worsened with tugging and pressure on the outer ear. Itching, swelling of the ear canal, redness, and a purulent discharge can also be seen. The ear canal may be so swollen and tender that the physician is unable to see the ear drum during the exam. If it is seen, it may be normal or infected, requiring additional treatment as well. Swimmer's ear without complications does not lead to hearing loss.

The treatment consists of antibiotic drops placed in the ear canal. When the pain is severe, analgesics may also be helpful. Prevention can be attempted in those who swim frequently and who have repeated episodes. The most effective preventive measures work when keeping the ear as dry as possible. Diluted alcohol or acetic acid (vinegar) placed in the ear canal can act as a drying agent. Commercial products are available as well. Your doctor can give you further advice on protection.

Swimmer's ear is not a serious condition, and is usually easily treatable. It generally does not have long term consequences.

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