Swimmer’s Ear

The summer swim season is just beginning, and kids will be spending many happy hours under water for weeks to come. One of the tough-to-avoid risks of all that splashing fun is swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa — a localized infection of the ear canal.

Swimmer’s ear is different from your standard ear infection because it affects the area on the outer side of the eardrum; the side that’s in contact with air (or water). This is different geography than a middle ear infection, which grows behind the eardrum.

When kids swim, whether it’s in a pool, the ocean or wherever, water finds its way into the ear canal and may not find its way out. The moisture stays trapped in a warm, dark place and becomes the perfect growth medium for bacteria. Before you know it, your happy little fish is howling in pain and the ear canal is ugly, angry, and red.

Some helpful hints to clue you in to swimmer’s ear:

  • Has kiddo been swimming? The more time spent in the water, the more likely it’s swimmer’s ear. Some kids are prone to swimmer’s ear and seem to get it over and over.
  • Is the ear painful to the touch? Swimmer’s ear hurts on the outside. Your child may not want to lie on that side. Gently pull on the ear lobe. If you get an “ouch” it’s swimmer’s ear. It can happen in both ears at once.
  • How old is your little guy? Regular ear infections are most common in children under five, because as children grow the anatomy of the ear changes and makes infection less likely. If yours doesn’t have a history of recurrent otitis, is over 5 and has been near water, chances are it’s swimmer’s ear.

Treatment of swimmer’s ear includes antibiotic ear drops prescribed by your family doc. In severe cases your doctor may recommend antibiotic drops for the ear PLUS systemic antibiotics by mouth. Both should be continued for the entire course, even if symptoms resolve before the medicine is finished.

In addition to the antibiotic, ask your doctor to prescribe topical ear drops for pain relief. These act almost instantly, and will have kiddo feeling better long before the antibiotic has time to work.

Keep your child out of the water until symptoms resolve and use earplugs in the water until the antibiotics are finished.

There are things you can do to save your little fish from repeated bouts of swimmer’s ear, and they all focus on keeping the ear canal from becoming a petri dish.

  • Earplugs in the water. This may be the best preventive solution for kiddos who seem to get swimmer’s ear every time they jump in the pool. Your child may fight it at first, but it’s way better than being dry-docked and in pain.
  • The drain-the-water dance. Teach your child to do the ‘jump and shake’ after swimming to help empty water from the ear canal.
  • Hydrogen peroxide. This clear antibacterial liquid works like magic. Use an eyedropper or saturated cotton ball to place a few drops in each ear after swimming. The harmless chemical reaction (it bubbles like crazy) kills bacteria and dries up the water.

All things considered, swimmer’s ear is a painful and annoying inconvenience. Appropriate treatment, along with a few prevention tricks, will keep it from becoming anything worse.



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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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