Preventing swimmer's ear

June 12, 2012 3:14:55 PM PDT
Warm weather makes you want to put on a bathing suit and jump in the pool, but if you develop pain in one ear or the other, it may be a simple and common problem called swimmer's ear.

It's so common that ten percent of Americans will have swimmer's ear at least once in their lifetimes. Men and women are sufferers equally, but children and teenagers get this type of outer ear infection most frequently.

Indoor or outdoor, summer means swimming to cool off and to tone up, but Mike Watkins didn't always have it easy in the water.

"My ear would be clogged up a little bit so I'm wondering what's wrong and then it would be inflamed," he said.

And painful, too. Mike had swimmer's ear. The skin of the ear canal between the eardrum and the outside can get inflamed and sometimes infected. There's normally a thin wax coating in the canal to protect the skin.

"Sometimes the chlorine or the seawater can wipe away the wax," Dr. Linda Dahl of Lenox Hill Hospital said.

And then someone uses cotton swabs like these to clean the ear.

"Then it really wipes all that wax away and the ear canal skin gets broken, and bacteria can just start growing," Dr. Dahl said.

The simplest remedy is a few drops of a mixture of half white vinegar and half rubbing alcohol. You won't need a Q-tip as the alcohol will dry the ear. The vinegar will kill the germs.

Antibiotics may be needed if there is a pus discharge or a severe infection.

It's not just swimmers. Anyone who takes a shower and then dries the ear with a rough cotton swab can get swimmer's ear.

Strong soaps in the shower can also irritate the ear canal. Prevention involves not using cotton swabs to dry the ear. Master swimmer Jeff King uses the home-ear drops.

"A combination of alcohol and vinegar and it dries the ear out and I've had no problems," king said.

Mike Watkins has his own way to prevent swimmer's ear.

"I got customized ear plugs, and a cap that covers the ears also," Watkins said.

Antibiotics for bad infections can come as drops or pills, depending on the severity of the problem. People with diabetes or low immune function can develop severe forms of swimmer's ear. Other things can cause ear pain and muffled hearing, so it's always best to see your doctor if simple treatment doesn't work.

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