Swimmer's ear is an infection of the ear canal. If you stick your finger in your ear, you're feeling a little of the ear canal. But if you have swimmer's ear, and you stick your finger in your ear — YOW! Let's find out more about this painful type of ear infection, which often affects swimmers.
Swimmer's ear — also called otitis externa (say: o-TY-tus ek-STUR-nuh) — is different from a regular ear infection. Usually, when people say a kid has an ear infection, they mean otitis media (say: ME-dee-uh), an infection of the middle ear. This sometimes happens when a kid gets a cold.
But swimmer's ear happens when bacteria grow in the ear canal, which is a passageway to the eardrum. In that canal, you'll find delicate skin that's protected by a thin coating of earwax. Most of the time, water can run in and out of the ear canal without causing a problem. For instance, you don't usually get swimmer's ear from taking baths or showers.
Bacteria get a chance to grow when water stays in the ear canal. A lot of swimming can lead to these wet conditions in the ear canal. Bacteria grow and the ear canal gets red and swollen. Sometimes kids can get an infection in the ear canal even if they haven't been swimming. A scratch or other irritation to the ear canal can also lead to swimmer's ear.
Swimmer's ear may start with some itching, but try not to scratch because this can worsen the infection. Ear pain is the most common sign of swimmer's ear. Even touching or bumping the outside of the ear can hurt. The infection also could make it harder to hear with the infected ear because of the swelling that happens in the ear canal.
If a doctor thinks you have swimmer's ear, he or she will help you get rid of the infection. To do that, the doctor will probably prescribe ear drops that contain an antibiotic to kill the bacteria. Sometimes, the doctor may use a wick. Not the wick on a candle! This kind of wick is like a tiny sponge the doctor puts in your ear. The medicine goes into the sponge and it keeps the medicine in contact with the ear canal that's infected. The wick is removed after it has done its job.
Use the drops as long as your doctor tells you to, even if your ear starts feeling better. Stopping too soon can cause the infection to come back. If your ear hurts, the doctor may suggest that a parent give you a children's pain medication. This can help you feel better while you're waiting for the antibiotic to work.
The question every kid wants to know is: "When can I swim again?" You'll have to ask your doctor, but be prepared to wait a little bit. It could be as long as a week to 10 days before the doctor says OK. That's a bummer in the summer, but it's better than having that awful ear pain again!
If you have a big problem with swimmer's ear or you're a kid who's always in the water, the doctor may suggest ways for you to protect yourself. For instance, your mom or dad can get some special drops to put in your ears after swimming to dry up the water in there. It's an extra step that just might keep your ears in super shape all summer!
Reviewed by: Steven Cook, MD
Date reviewed: August 2012
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