Tips for preventing swimmer's ear in children

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What parents can do to keep swimmer's ear from striking after a day at the pool

Now that summer has officially arrived, parents might find themselves scrambling for ways to fill school-free days. Keeping kids entertained while also limiting screen-time can sometimes be a challenge, but swimming is one screen-free activity that fits the bill.

Letting your kid splash around in the pool, lake, or ocean is a great way to promote physical activity and help them stay cool. But all that diving and splashing can lead to some unwanted consequences -- namely, swimmer’s ear.

Acute otitis externa, or swimmer’s ear, is an infection caused by water remaining in the ear after swimming. This causes an environment that helps bacteria grow, explains Kara Jones-Schubart, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing.

Main symptoms

“Swimming is a significant risk factor especially in fresh water,” she says. “For most people, swimmer’s ear is a one-time occurrence, but for others, it can take a more chronic form.”

If your child has any of the following symptoms, swimmer’s ear might be the culprit:

  • Redness in the outer ear along with some warmness and pain
  • Parts of the ear are tender when touched or moved
  • The ear feels full, itchy, and irritated

Health care providers typically prescribe eardrops to treat most cases of swimmer’s ear, but more severe cases may call for oral antibiotics (and possibly ear drops).

Prevention tips

Although usually easily treated, swimmer’s ear certainly isn’t fun. Fortunately, there are a few ways to help keep swimmer’s ear at bay.

“Many people who swim often realize that ear plugs are extremely beneficial when you go swimming,” Jones-Schubart said. “There are also some over-the-counter solutions that you can use to help rinse out everything in your ear and break up any blockage.”

In addition to wearing earplugs while swimming, the Mayo Clinic has the following tips for preventing swimmer’s ear:

  • Use a hair dryer. To dry out ears after a swim, use a hair dryer on a very low setting so as not to damage your hearing. A soft towel can also be used to dry the outer ears after swimming.
  • Homemade preventive eardrops. For kids without punctured eardrums, an at-home preventive treatment may be used before and after swimming. Mix one part white vinegar to one part rubbing alcohol to help prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi that can cause swimmer’s ear. Pour one teaspoon into each ear and let it drain back out.
  • Don't use cotton swabs. Avoid putting cotton swabs or other foreign objects in your child's ear, as these can push material deeper into the ear canal. 

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