Otitis Externa ("Swimmer's Ear")

Otitis externa, more commonly known as swimmer's ear, is an infection of the ear canal.  The infection often occurs in children who spend a lot of time in the water.  However, any break in the skin of the ear canal can lead to the infection.  The infection can be caused by bacteria or fungi.  Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium living in contaminated water, is the most common cause.

Ear pain is the most common symptom of otitis externa.  Specifically, children have pain when the ear is pulled in any direction.   Touching the ear may be painful.  Swelling of the ear canal may lead to a sensation of fullness or discomfort in the ear.  Children may also have yellow drainage from the affected ear.  Affected individuals may have decreased hearing in a given ear if swelling or drainage blocks the canal.  Fever is uncommon in otitis externa.

Otitis externa is not contagious from person-to-person.

As the causative organisms live in water, avoiding swimming in contaminated water is crucial to avoiding swimmer's ear.  Pools should have appropriate chlorine levels.  Drying one's ears after swimming may also help protect against developing swimmer's ear.

Treatment involves pain control (e.g. acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)) and antibiotic ear drops.  We may also consider a combination antibiotic-steroid ear drop to decrease pain and inflammation.  

For children who are prone to recurrent episodes of swimmer's ear, consider trying the following home-made drying treatment:  mix equal parts of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar (e.g. 1 tsp each).  Using a medicine dropper, place 3-4 drops in each ear after swimming.  Do not use this treatment if the child is already complaining of pain in the ear.
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Silver Spring Pediatrics
Drs. DeConcini, Schooler, Zang, Wang, Yee & Marcus
Image courtesy aboutkidshealth.ca