Swimmers Ear—Otitis Externa

During the summer months, we start seeing a lot of “swimmer’s ear”, but if your child or adolescent is on a swim team year round, you may be dealing with this problem regardless of the month.

Basically, otitis externa is an infection of the skin that lines the ear canal. When water repeatedly gets trapped in the ear canal, the lining becomes wet and swollen. This makes it prone to superficial infections. It causes an itchy, painful ear, sometimes with drainage. There may be a sensation that the ear is plugged. Generally there is pain when the outer ear is moved up and down.

If it’s a mild case, you can try a home remedy:

  • Rinse the ear canals twice a day with ½-strength white vinegar (mixed with equal parts water).
  • Fill the ear canal.
  • After 5 minutes, remove it by turning the head to the side.

More significant cases usually require prescription ear drops, so you’ll need to make an appointment to see one of us. Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief. You can also use a heating pad or hot water bottle to the outer ear for up to 20 minutes for pain relief. With treatment, symptoms should be better in about 3 days.

Try to avoid swimming until all the symptoms have resolved. If your child is on swim team, it’s OK to continue. Swimming may slow recovery, but causes no significant harm.

The key to prevention is keeping the ear canals dry. After swimming, hair washing, showers, etc, turn the head to let the water run out of the canals. If your child is on swim team, you can make a home remedy of ½ rubbing alcohol and ½ white vinegar to rinse your child’s ear canals with after practices to restore to normal acid balance to and dry the canals.

You should call a doctor if:

  • your child is experiencing severe ear pain
  • your child’s ear pain is accompanied by fever
  • there is redness and swelling of the outer ear