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Swimmer's Ear

Tuesday, July 16, 2002; Page HE02

WHAT ON EARTH DID YOU DO?

You spent Saturday swimming -- and Sunday hurting. Oh, your aching ear!

Swimmer's ear is a middle ear infection. (Photodisc)

HERE'S WHAT REALLY HAPPENED

All that moisture made the outer part of your ear a cozy place for the bacteria and fungi suspected of causing swimmer's ear, a variant of earache known as otitis externa. The water may also have washed away protective earwax. You know it's swimmer's ear and not otitis media, or middle-ear infection, because it feels worse when you wiggle your earlobe. You may have noticed itching in the ear canal before the pain set in. You may also see pus leaking from your ear, and the swelling may make you temporarily hard of hearing. Untreated, the infection can spread to the bone and cartilage behind the ear.

THE STANDARD ADVICE

Take acetaminophine (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and use a heating pad or hot towel for the pain. Call your doctor, who is likely to prescribe antibiotic eardrops and, in advanced cases, an oral antibiotic. You may also be directed to keep the ear dry for 10 to 14 days. That means an earplug for the shower -- and no pool privileges.

IS THERE A BETTER WAY?

Alternative treatments offer little relief, as swimmer's ear is an infection and needs an antibiotic. But remember Cipro, the prescription-only corticosteroid that flew off pharmacy shelves during last fall's anthrax episode? It's also approved in eardrop form for treating otitis externa, and promises to ease symptoms faster than other treatments.

DON'T ADD INSULT TO INJURY

Don't scratch. You may feel like your ear is plugged up with wax, but fight the urge to dig at it. Poking may open infection-prone wounds.

ONCE IS ENOUGH

Dry your ears well when you finish swimming; tilt your head and shake the water out. If you're in the water frequently, ward off future cases with an over-the-counter alcohol-based eardrop (an acetic acid otic solution like Vosol or Acetasol), plain old rubbing alcohol, a few drops of white vinegar or a combination of these liquids.

These measures only help prevent new infections. Don't use them to treat existing cases: When alcohol hits raw skin, it can be excruciating. Never clean your ear with cotton-swab sticks or -- yikes! -- bobby pins, which can scratch the skin and make it more vulnerable to infection. If you get swimmer's ear frequently, your doctor may have you use lanolin eardrops before swimming. If lots of folks at your pool are getting swimmer's ear, the chlorine or pH may need adjusting. Talk to the manager.

READ ALL ABOUT IT

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a straightforward site: www.cdc.gov/healthyswimming/swimmers_ear.htm.

-- Jennifer Huget


© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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