Summer means popsicles, pools, and — swimmer's ear? There's typically a surge of unhappy kids with itchy red ears around this time of the year. Clinics have seen surges of about 60 percent in the number of kids coming in with the ear infection. Here's how to avoid the infection and what to do if you get it:
How do you know it's swimmer's ear? "It's painful. It hurts like the dickens," says Tim Hendrix, medical director of Centra Care, Florida Hospital's network of urgent-care centers. Young children will often cry. The ear will be red and will often have drainage. Tug on the outer ear — if it hurts, it's an ear infection.
Pam Michael's kids, 4-year-old Drew and 1-year-old Dane, spend the summer splashing in their pool. She knows the signs of swimmer's ear well.
"When his earlobe starts to get red, and he can't even sleep on that side of the head, that's when we know it's swimmer's ear," Michael said.
How do you get it? Swimming is the common culprit, but you can get the infection anytime water collects in your inner ear for several hours, such as from showering or taking a bath. That's because water alters the chemical balance inside the ear, leaving it exposed to bacterial infection. Working up a sweat playing sports or mowing the lawn can leave you vulnerable to swimmer's ear, too. It's OK to have moisture in your ear while splashing in the pool, but it's water sitting in the ear canal afterward that's the problem.
How do you avoid it? Get the water out of your ear. The best way is to tilt your head and let the water drain in a towel. The worst way is to stick a cotton swab in your ear because it can scratch the ear canal's fragile skin, leaving it even more exposed to bacteria. "Nothing smaller than your elbow should ever go in your ears," Hendrix says. To be sure the ear is dry, you can use an over-the-counter drop such as Swim-Ear, which evaporates water using a mild alcohol solution. A hair dryer on low heat is OK, too, Hendrix says.
What if you have swimmer's ear? Go to the doctor for antibiotic drops. "No over-the-counter medications will help," Hendrix says.
What if it keeps coming back? After Drew had five or six infections within six to eight months, he had surgery to reshape his ear canal. His canal is unusually flat, which makes it difficult for water to drain naturally. Tiny macaronilike tubes in his ear help to reshape his ear canals as he grows, and he wears earplugs now when he swims.
Drew's brother Dane has had four infections already this year and is on antibiotics.
"Dane is almost there, too," Michael says. "He has the same shape head as his brother!"