What is swimmer’s ear? How do you treat it? How can you prevent it other than doing a goofy dance?
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Today’s article is brought to you by sound waves. Without their continuing presence, this podcast would not exist at all, and you would not be enchanted and delighted with the dulcet tones of my voice. All of this, of course, would not be possible without the generous support of the organs of hearing: the ears. Thank you for your support. As a doctor, I would like to thank the ears for a huge portion of my business over the past 15 years.
[Swallows]. Sorry…that subject just makes me emotional.
Ear problems are a common reason for people to go to the doctor -- especially young children. I personally remember as a kid, sitting at the top of the steps crying because my ear hurt so badly, and two of my children had bad enough ear problems to get tubes through their eardrums. Ears cause a lot of trouble, so I’ll need several podcasts to cover them. I'll tackle ear infections in episode 14, but today’s podcast will focus on the summertime nemesis: swimmer’s ear.
Before getting on with it, however, let me remind you that this podcast is for informational purposes only. My goal is to add to your medical knowledge and translate some of the weird medical stuff you hear, so when you do go to your doctor, your visits will be more fruitful. I don’t intend to replace your doctor; he or she is the one you should always consult about your own medical condition.
What Causes Swimmer’s Ear?
There are two common types of ear infections: middle ear infections, or otitis media, and external ear infections, or otitis externa. Since most people would feel hoity-toity saying otitis externa, this infection is commonly called swimmer’s ear. Of the two kinds of ear infections, swimmer’s ear is probably the more painful. In that painful memory of my childhood, it was swimmer’s ear that kept me (and my parents) miserable that night.
So how does a person get swimmer’s ear? Obviously, swimming can play a part in the process -- and we really do see 95% of our cases of this in the summer months. But you can get swimmer’s ear in the shower, bathtub, or from playing in your neighbor’s sprinklers at night when they aren’t watching. The key is that water gets into the ear canal.
You may recall in the antibiotic podcast that I talked about how things like to grow in warm, wet places where the water is stagnant. The ear canal meets these criteria wonderfully. Water that’s in your ear after swimming can become a breeding ground for infection-causing bacteria. Sometimes the shape of the ear canal plays into this, and other times wax makes it so water can get in but not back out. Whatever the case, water staying in the ear canal long enough will be at risk of infection.