As the heat takes hold in the summer, there's nothing more relaxing
than diving into a cool body of water--unless you end up with swimmer's
ear. This condition, also called otitis externa, not only causes pain
and discomfort, but also itchiness, fluid discharge and hearing problems--and
these symptoms get worse if the infection goes untreated. To learn more
about how to prevent or care for swimmer's ear,
Steven Kmucha, MD, JD, a board-certified otolaryngologist at
St. Joseph Health Medical Group, shares some essential facts:
FACT #1: You don't have to be a swimmer to get swimmer's ear.
Swimming is the most common cause of swimmer's ear--when water gets
trapped in the outer ear canal, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria.
"However, you can get swimmer's ear in other ways, such as bathing,
perspiring heavily, and scratching or damaging the ear canal skin when
cleaning ears with a cotton swab or putting in an object such as earbuds,"
Dr. Kmucha says. "The infection can also be triggered by an allergic
reaction to hair products or earrings."
FACT #2: There are three stages of swimmer's ear: mild, moderate and advanced.
"The early stage of swimmer's ear usually results in a low-level
pain, with some redness and itching," Dr. Kmucha says. "But
once it progresses to the moderate stage, those symptoms intensify; when
it reaches the advanced level, you may be dealing with acute pain, a blocked
ear canal and swelling of the ear itself as well as the neck's lymph
nodes. In rare cases, the infection can spread. That's why it's
important to get treated right away, and never assume your mild symptoms
will just go away in time."
Dr. Kmucha emphasizes that early evaluation and treatment is particularly
important for diabetic patients, because otitis externa can rapidly become
more aggressive in people with diabetes.
FACT #3: Prescription ear drops are usually the best course of treatment.
"To cure swimmer's ear, you need the potency of ear medication
that can curb inflammation in the outer ear canal, restore its normal
antibacterial properties and fight the infection--usually an antibiotic
for a bacterial infection, although an antifungal medication may be required,"
Dr. Kmucha says. "It's important to note that over-the-counter
ear drops are for preventative treatment only, and cannot heal swimmer's
ear." In certain situations where the infection isn't cured with
ear drop, oral medication may be prescribed.
FACT #4: Warm your ear drops before administering them--it will feel better.
Cold drops may cause discomfort and pain in infected ears. "Simply
holding the bottle for a few minutes will warm up the drops before putting
them in your ears," Dr. Kmucha says. "Also, you should lie down,
with the infected ear facing up, when applying drops so they reach the
entire ear canal--don't try to do it standing up and just tilting
your head--you'll need to take a couple of minutes to let the drops
work their magic throughout the canal."
FACT #5: Simple steps can prevent swimmer's ear.
It's not hard to avoid getting swimmer's ear. "There are several
things you can do to keep your ears dry," Dr. Kmucha says. "Gently
tilt your head to both sides to let water drain from the ear area after
swimming or showering. You can also gently clean it with a dry towel,
or even use a blow dryer to remove moisture--but the dryer should be set
on the lowest heat level and be at least a foot away from the ears."
When it comes to drops, there are the over-the-counter options or you
can make your own with equal parts vinegar and rubbing alcohol, which
will dry out the ear canal and stop bacterial growth. "Use about
a teaspoon in each ear, making sure the drops drain back out after a moment."
FACT #6: Be mindful of what you put in your ears.
Whether you purchase drops or make your own, don't use them if you
have a perforated eardrum, as the drops could cause further problems in
the middle ear. "If you don't want to use drops, cotton balls
or waterproof ear guards can work to keep ears dry" says Dr. Kmucha.
Finally, don't stick anything in your ears, such as a cotton swab.
"If you are worried about excessive earwax, consult with a doctor,
but your ears need the wax to stay clean and healthy," he/she says.
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