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Avoid swimmer’s ear this summer – Ogden Clinic provided source, Standard-Examiner 7/7/2015

OGDEN - Summer is officially here and that means kids will be spending a lot of time in the water. While swimming is great fun and great exercise, it’s important for parents to watch for a common, but very painful infection: swimmer’s ear.

Swimmer’s ear, also known as Otitis externa, is an infection of the ear canal, located between the eardrum and the opening to the outer ear,” said Dr. Douglas K. Anderson, an ear, nose and throat physician and surgeon at Ogden Clinic.

“It accounts for two to four million health care visits per year and nearly half a billion dollars in health care costs,” Anderson said.

Anderson said swimmer’s ear differs from ear infections located behind the eardrum which is called otitis media.

“A person with an earache can tell if he has swimmers ear by pulling down on the ear lobe or pushing on the skin covered cartilage bump in front of the ear canal opening, both of which will be quite painful,” he said.

Bacteria and fungi love to grow in dark, warm and moist areas, Anderson said. Certain types of water like lake water, dirty bath water or poorly maintained swim pools have higher bacteria counts and are more likely to cause swimmer’s ear. A person who commonly gets water in his ears and allows the water to stay in the ear canal for longer periods of time is more likely to get an infection. Swimming pools and hot tubs that are maintained with proper pH levels and with disinfectants are less likely to cause swimmer’s ear.

Dr. John R. Siddoway, also an ear, nose and throat physician at Ogden Clinic, said the most common symptom of swimmer’s ear is pain, but other symptoms include fever, blockage of the ear, discharge from the canal, hearing loss and swollen lymph nodes.

“Because the jaw joint is located directly in front of the ear canal, ear pain can be increased with chewing,” Siddoway said.

In addition, Anderson said, other symptoms can include itching and redness and swelling of the ear.

“Symptoms can range from mild to severe and infections and can cause the ear canal to swell completely shut, which is very painful. In severe cases especially diabetics or people who have a compromised immune system the infections can spread to surrounding tissues and even be life threatening,” Anderson said.

Dr. Robert Mellor, an ENT at Tanner Clinic, said treatment includes cleaning the ear canal well of infected debris with a soft tissue curled up to a point and if there is no hole in the eardrum or tubes in the ears, you can rinse with a solution of half white vinegar, half rubbing alcohol. While this can be done at home, it’s also wise to see a physician who will probably treat the ear with antibiotic or antifungal ear drops.

Mellor also said not to use Q-tips to clean the ears.

“Using Q-tips can pack wax into ear or remove too much of the wax which has a lubricating and protective function. This may predispose you to infection and irritation,” he said.

Anderson and Siddoway both agree.

“Since the skin and wax are both barriers to infection, using Q-tips or other objects such as bobby pins or pencils to clean out an ear may make a person more likely to get an infection because these objects create tiny scratches or breaks in the skin that allow bacteria to infect deeper tissues,” Anderson said.

“There is a saying that states that a person shouldn’t put anything smaller than their elbow in the ear.”

Siddoway said some ways to prevent swimmer’s ear include drying the ears after swimming or bathing. You can also use moldable silicone ear plugs in the pool to seal the ear canal, but do so carefully.

“The earplugs should be used to block the opening of the ear canal like a cover, not inserted into the ear canal itself. Do not use Silly Putty for this purpose,” Siddoway said. “Analgesics like Tylenol and Ibuprofen and a warm pad or water bottle over the outer ear can help control pain.”

Anderson said you can tile your head with each ear directed toward the ground and pulling on the ear lobe to help get the water out of your ears.

“If necessary, using air dryers on the lowest heat and speed held several inches from the ear can be helpful,” he said.

All three physicians said it’s best to wait until the infection is gone before getting back in the water since ear plugs or swim caps or additional moisture may make things worse.