Swimmer’s Ear Cause and Treatment
By Dale Peterson, MD – Building Health
For many families summer fun means spending time in water.
That is why a condition commonly referred to as swimmer’s ear is one of the most common summertime health challenges. The medical term for swimmer’s ear is otitis externa, which means an inflammation of the outer ear.
If you have ever stayed in a bathtub too long you have found that your skin has become wrinkled and pale. This is because the upper layer of skin cells has become waterlogged. When this happens the skin is no longer able to avoid invasion by bacteria, yeasts, and other micro-organisms and the stage is set for an infection.
One need not go swimming to develop swimmer’s ear. It can also occur because water has remained in the ear after showering. Some of the most severe cases I have seen have been caused by attempting to clean an ear using a metal object such as a hairpin or a paper clip. (There is a good reason that children are often taught not to put anything smaller than their elbow into their ears.)
Swimmer’s ear can almost always be prevented by drying the ears completely after swimming or showering. This is best accomplished by bending the head to the side and pulling up and out on the ear to straighten the canal and allow any water present to drain. Drying can be further enhanced by putting a few drops of a solution made up of 50 % rubbing alcohol and 50 % white vinegar into the ear. (The drops should not be used if tubes are present in the ears or if one suspects a ruptured eardrum is present.)
If an infection does begin, as indicated by pain that is intensified by movement of the outer ear, using the alcohol/vinegar drops at hourly intervals will clear it in the vast majority of cases. If the pain worsens and it is not possible to get the drops to go into the ear due to swelling of the canal it is generally necessary to seek medical attention. The proper treatment is to place a wick in the ear, which will allow drops to be drawn into the canal where they are needed.
I strongly encourage families to keep a dropper bottle of an alcohol/vinegar solution available for use after swimming or showering anytime water has entered the ear. Because it passes through bone, swelling of the ear canal can become excruciatingly painful in a short amount of time. A fun-filled day at a lake, pool, or water park may be followed by an earache that evening or in the middle of the night. Having swimmer’s ear drops available can not only stop the swelling and keep the pain from becoming unbearable, it can potentially save a great deal of money. The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported this May that the costs associated with swimmer’s ear infections exceed $2.4 Billion annually in the United States. This averages out to $200 per infection. At first glance the figures are almost impossible to believe, but the article points out that many people who develop the condition seek help in an emergency room, the most costly point of service.
I hope you are having fun this summer. Taking the precaution of draining excess water from your ears after getting out of a pool or swimming hole should allow you to enjoy the water without experiencing the painful consequence of swimmer’s ear.
Dr. Dale Peterson is a graduate of the University of Minnesota College of Medicine. He completed his residency in FamilyMedicine at the University of Oklahoma. He is a past president of the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians. He had a full-time family practice in Edmond, Oklahoma, for over 20 years and was a Chief of Staff of the Edmond Hospital. He was active in teachingfor many years as a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine through the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center.
Dr. Peterson left his full-time family practice in 1999 to consult with individuals who are seeking ways to restore and maintain their health through improved nutrition and other lifestyle changes. He founded the Wellness Clubs of America to give people access to credible information on supporting and maintaining their health. His monthly wellness letter, Health by Design, and his Health by Design E-Newsletter provide helpful information to individuals interested in preventing and conquering health challenges. His book Building Health by Design: Adding Life to Your Years and Years to Your Life was released in December 2010.
Dr. Peterson speaks regularly on subjects related to health and nutrition. He hosted a weekly radio program,Your Health Matters, on KTOK in Oklahoma City for five years. For the past nine years he has addressed questions from across the nation on his Your Health Matters weekly teleconference.He offers a free video LifeXtension course at www.drdalepeterson.com.