When summer rolls around, many families head to the beach or the pool for a day of fun in the water or relief on a hot day. An afternoon of swimming or splashing around in the backyard or community pool or nearest beach is a major part of summer fun.
But it’s important to protect your ears when you or your children start enjoying time in the water to avoid swimmer’s ear – a treatable but serious issue that plagues many people every year.
What’s Swimmer’s Ear?
This condition is marked by infection, inflammation, or irritation of the outer ear canal. This is different from a regular ear infection, which occurs in the middle ear. Sometimes swimmer’s ear is a secondary infection brought on by middle ear or respiratory infections. It can also be caused by scratches inside the ear. However, swimming is the most common instigator of this painful issue.
The source of pain and inflammation in this condition is damage to the delicate skin around your ear canal. When bacteria or fungal organisms grow there, it causes discomfort. Sometimes this is accompanied by pus and swelling. In advanced stages, fever and complete blockage of the ear canal can result.
Swimmer’s ear occurs because moisture left inside the ears can act as a breeding ground for these organisms. Another cause of this condition is lakes, pools, and other communal locations that can come pre-packaged with bacteria. More often than not, teenagers who have been swimming develop this issue, but it isn’t age specific. If you experience any symptoms of swimmer’s ear, call your doctor. Even if they begin mildly, they can quickly accelerate.
How to Avoid Swimmer’s Ear?
Be careful about where you decide to swim. If it’s a pool, make sure it’s regularly maintained, and if it’s a lake or river, stick to moving water rather than stagnant areas. Regardless of where you swim, always try and drain your ears after by titling your head to each side.
There’s no need to worry about swimmer’s ear from showers, and even when kids take baths, it’s not likely they’ll get swimmer’s ear since the water is clean. However, if water does get trapped in the ear canal, it’s possible. While drying, be mindful not to shove anything into your ear. This can scratch the delicate tissues inside and cause a similar issue. Along these same lines, avoid using cotton swabs too aggressively. Another good tip is to refrain from sharing earbuds and to clean yours regularly.
Kids and Swim Ear Plugs
For children with recurrent ear infections such as swimmer’s ear (otitis externa), infections of the middle ear (otitis media) or ear tubes, the best bet is often swim ear plugs. These custom plugs keep ears dry preventing water containing harmful bacteria to get trapped inside the ear.
Many doctors recommend swim ear plugs for children that have ear tubes. Ear tubes are small cylinders that have been placed through the eardrum in the case of recurring middle ear infections in order to allow fluid to drain. Other doctors recommend regular use of swim ear plugs only when diving or swimming in untreated water, such as lakes, rivers and oceans.
The argument for limited use of plugs for children with ear tubes is predicated on the fact that surface tension of the water will prevent any water from entering the ear tubes, so unless a child is swimming 3 feet or more under water, they should be safe. To that end, children with ear tubes also should wear swim ear plugs whenever ears are submerged in soapy water in the bathtub. Soap acts as a surfactant, or lubricant, to reduce the surface tension and will allow the water to enter the tubes.
Even without ear tubes, swimming can pose risks for children with current ear infections or previous surgery. Although swimming doesn’t cause middle ear infections, swim ear plugs should be worn so any water pollutants don’t make an existing infection worse. Keep in mind also that underwater swimming can cause painful pressure changes for children with ear infections. And in the case of a ruptured acute otitis media, also known as an ear infection with a ruptured eardrum, swimming should be avoided completely until the infection has cleared up.
Types of Swim Ear Plugs
There are two kinds of swim ear plugs available: custom fit plugs and one-size-fits-all swim plugs from the drugstore or pharmacy. They are both effective for keeping ears dry, but each type has advantages and disadvantages. Your hearing care professional can help you get the right kind for your child.
Custom swim ear plugs
If you choose custom fit swim ear plugs, they will need to be ordered through a hearing care professional. The advantage of custom swim plugs is that they are high quality, comfortable and last longer than drugstore plugs. They are re-usable and washable for greater hygiene.
A disadvantage to custom fit swim ear plugs is that they are more expensive. Ear plugs are easily lost, and custom fit ear plugs are more difficult and more expensive to replace than the drugstore types. A swim ear band may be helpful for keeping plugs in place and preventing loss.
The other option is one-size-fits-all ear plugs available from the drugstore. Usually made of silicone or putty, they are easy to obtain and less expensive than custom swim ear plugs. That means when they are lost, which is a common occurrence with swim ear plugs, they are easier and less expensive to quickly replace. They don’t require a custom fit, and often come in bright colors so they are easy to locate at the bottom of the pool or around the pool deck. One size fits all ear plugs are also easy for kids to put in by themselves, and usually do not require an adult’s help.
Drugstore ear plugs are usually not washable, and therefore not terribly hygienic. Due to wax and debris buildup, many people consider them disposable after one or two uses. With swim ear plugs made of putty, there is also a slim possibility that bits of putty could be left behind after the swim plugs are removed from the ears. One-size-fits-all plugs made of silicone, however, may solve this problem because they are washable.
Enjoy Summer Pain-Free
Swimmer’s ear is a quick way to put a damper on any summer fun. Now that you know what it is and how it’s caused, you’re better armed to combat it. Remember these easy tips, and your summer should be free from these ear troubles.
And if you or your child experiences ear pain after a day in the water, contact us for an appointment with one of our highly trained ear doctors.