By Kathy Hubbard
Several years ago, a neighbor called to thank me for the column I had written that week. He told me that he had been suffering from an annoying pain in his ear and that when he read my article on otitis externa (also known as swimmer’s ear) he immediately knew that was what his problem was. His healthcare professional confirmed his self-diagnosis and he was treated and healed.
I ran into him the other day, and he mentioned it again. So, with all this great summer weather beckoning us to take a plunge, I thought this might be a good time to help someone else, maybe you, identify a problem or better yet prevent one.
Swimmer’s ear occurs when water sits in the ear canal irritating and breaking down the skin in the canal providing an ideal breeding ground for harmful bacteria. Swimming isn’t the only cause. It can happen in the bathtub or shower.
Basically, anything that causes a break in the skin in the ear can lead to infection such as dry skin, scratching the ear canal, vigorous ear cleaning with cotton swabs or inserting other foreign objects can all increase the risk of developing otitis externa. Remember the old adage: don’t put anything smaller than an elbow in your ear.
The fact is that one out of 10 of us will suffer from swimmer’s ear at least once in our lives. And suffering it is. Starting with an itch the ear will become sensitive to the touch, particularly the earlobe and that little bump in front of your ear. You might find that just putting your head on the pillow is uncomfortable.
The canal may drain a clear, white, yellow or bloody fluid that smells really foul. The feeling that the ear is full is a common description of the symptoms and sounds can be muffled. Ringing in the ear and dizziness or vertigo may also occur.
Left untreated the pain may radiate to your face, neck or the side of your face. Your ear canal will become completely blocked and redness and swelling will occur on your outer ear. You’ll experience swelling of the lymph nodes in your neck and develop a high fever.
It’s best to see your medical provider at the onset of the slightest symptoms. They will prescribe drops and possibly an oral antibiotic. Over-the-counter pain meds are usually all you’ll need for the discomfort.
During treatment you won’t be able to swim. That’s the bad news for us, since our swimming season is so short. You may be out of the water as long as 10 days or more if the infection doesn’t clear up with drugs.
While infected you shouldn’t fly in an airplane. Wearing earplugs, hearing aids or headphones must be avoided until the discharge has stopped. Protect yourself from getting water in your ears. Put a cotton ball coated in petroleum jelly in those ear holes or wear a cap while swimming or showering.
The best defense is to make sure you dry your ears carefully and completely after being in the water. Use a soft towel to wipe the outer ear and tilt your head to make sure all the moisture has drained out. A hair dryer set on its lowest setting can be used if you hold it at least 12 inches away from the ear.
Over-the-counter drops or homemade ones are a good idea, unless you have a punctured ear drum. A mixture of one part white vinegar and one part rubbing alcohol may prevent bacteria and fungi. Pour one teaspoon into each ear and let it drain back out.
Talk to your healthcare provider before swimming if you suffer from chronic ear infections or have had ear surgery.
If you eschew the lake for a back yard pool be sure the chemicals are in balance. A free test kit can be requested online at https://www.healthypools.org/freeteststrips. Kits include three pool test strips and a pamphlet of information, including CDC’s tips for preventing swimmer’s ear.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.