Does My Child Have Swimmer's Ear?

Q: My child has ear pain.   I thought kids had ear infections in the winter.  What is wrong with him?

A: It may be swimmer’s ear, or otitis externa, an infection of the lining of the ear canal. It is most commonly seen in children who spend a lot of time in the water.  Water gets trapped in the canal, causing the lining of the canal to swell and that makes the canal prone to infection.   

Children are more prone to get swimmer’s ear from swimming in lake water because bacteria levels can be higher in lakes than in swimming pools. Narrow ear canals and use of cotton swabs can contribute to the problem.

Swimmer’s ear can present with itchy and painful ear canals. Your son may have pain when pressure or movement is exerted on the outer ear (hurts to lie on that ear).   Sometimes the ear feels “plugged up.”  Occasionally you can see drainage from the ear.

The infection is treated with antibiotic ear drops that are prescribed by your child’s health care provider after an examination of the ears.  Your child should not swim until the symptoms are gone, but if your child does swim while on therapy, it just takes longer to heal. Pain relievers can be used for the discomfort.

Prevention of swimmer’s ear involves keeping the ears as dry as possible. Tilting your child’s head from side to side to drain the water out of the canals after swimming can help. In addition, you can administer a 50/50 solution of vinegar and water by 3-4 drops to each canal after swimming.  he vinegar is antibacterial, and helps restore the acid balance in the canal.  Ear plugs are not necessary and you should limit the use of cotton swabs.

If you believe your child has swimmer’s ear, it is best to have him examined by a health care provider to confirm your suspicion.  

By Sharon Rink. MD, pediatrician at ThedaCare Physicians-Darboy.