Swimmer’s ear is directly related to the length of time the ears spend in, under and around water.
The ear canal is a tunnel that leads from the outer ear and ends blindly at the ear drum (also known as the tympanic membrane). This tunnel, which runs through the temporal bone, is lined with skin. It’s this skin that makes the wax that protects the skin and keeps sand and other debris from reaching the ear drum and damaging it.
When the ear canal is wet, it gets red and irritated–think of dishpan hands. The longer this wetness persists, the more irritated and swollen the skin becomes, and the harder it is for the area to dry. Water-loving bacteria like pseudomonas start to multiply, and soon the area gets infected. Swimmer’s ear is painful because there’s so little space between the skin and the bone for the infection. Sometimes the ear canal swells almost completely closed.
Prevention is key: Keep those ears dry. Do a little dance to shake them out after the swim. Dry the ear canals with a hair dryer set on cool, low setting held away from the head. Over-the counter after swim ear drops use rubbing alcohol to dry the canal. Other options include making a 1 to 1 mixture of rubbing alcohol and 2% white vinegar and using a few drops of this after swimming to make the ear canal less bacteria-friendly.
Avoid putting anything–like cotton swabs–in the ear. Wax protects the skin of the ear canal from wetness and the swabs can abrade the canal and leave a place for bacteria to enter.
Suspect swimmer’s ear if there is pain when the outer ear is touched or moved. Start home care with applying warm compresses, giving pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and keeping the ear dry by staying out of the water. If home care isn’t effective, the doctor will examine the ear. Sometimes she will remove debris or insert a wick. This helps the prescription drops–a combination of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications–get to the infected ear canal.
Since it’s tough to keep water out of kids’ ears when they swim, ear plugs, lambs wool, and headbands aren’t a sure fix.