What’s the Deal With Swimmer’s Ear?

By Howard J. Bennett

The best thing about Memorial Day is that summer vacation is just weeks away. The second best thing about Memorial Day is that swimming season officially begins. Whether it’s a community pool or the ocean, all kids love to jump, dive or slide into the water. (Kids love the water so much that it’s hard for parents to get them to apply sunscreen, eat lunch or even go to the bathroom!)

For most kids, being in the pool for hours at a time doesn’t cause any problems. Some kids, however, can get an infection called a swimmer’s ear. Although a swimmer’s ear isn’t serious, it hurts a lot. Fortunately, in most cases, it’s very easy to treat.

The ear is divided into three parts. The outer ear includes the ear itself and the ear canal. The middle ear is made up of the eardrum and the middle ear bones that transmit vibrations to the inner ear. The inner ear is made up of the cochlea, which transmits sound signals to the brain and the semicircular canals that help with balance.

The ear canal is lined with sensitive skin, tiny hairs and special wax-producing glands. Your ears produce wax is to protect the skin that lines the ear canal. The wax also traps foreign matter and thereby protects your eardrums.

If you’ve been swimming for a long time, water usually gets in your ear canal. Sometimes the water will dissolve the wax and become trapped inside. Because the ear canal isn’t sterile (that means it contains germs) the water may enable the bacteria to grow, causing an infection.

Doctors diagnose a swimmer’s ear by seeing what happens if you gently pull on your ear. With a regular ear infection (that’s the type you get after colds or the flu) it doesn’t hurt to pull on your ear. The reason it doesn’t hurt is because your middle ear is located within bone so moving the ear doesn’t put pressure on the eardrum. Because swimmer’s ear is an infection in the ear canal, pulling moves the part that’s infected, causing pain.

Doctors treat swimmer’s ear with drops that reduce inflammation and kill bacteria. The good news is that you should feel better in a day or so. The bad news is that it’s not a good idea to go swimming until get the “okay” from your doctor. This can be anywhere from three days to a week.

You can prevent swimmer’s ear by removing the water gets trapped in your ear when you’re swimming. When you come out of the water, take a moment to tilt your head to one side and bounce up and down. Another technique is to put drops in your ear canal that help dry out the water. Your parents can get these at the drug store; no prescription is needed.


© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 5/31/10.)

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