By DR. CHARLES ELMARAGHY
The difference between an ear infection and swimmer’s ear is where the infection occurs.
The most common ear infection is a middle-ear infection, also known as otitis media, and occurs when there is infection or inflammation in the middle ear.
This happens when bacteria is introduced into the ear through the Eustachian tube. This connects the middle ear and the throat. Viruses and bacteria taken in through the nose and mouth can find their way to the middle ear, causing an infection.
Common symptoms in children include pulling or rubbing the ears, general fussiness, constant crying or waking up at night crying, fever, loss of appetite and possibly even vomiting. Older children may be able to articulate ear pain, but younger children may simply be more irritable than usual.
With swimmer’s ear, there is an infection in the ear canal. This is the opening in the outside of the ear that connects to the eardrum.
When a person swims frequently, he or she is prone to having moisture in the ear canal which can irritate and weaken the skin in the canal, allowing bacteria to enter into the skin which then causes an infection.
The pH of pool water allows for more abundant growth of bacteria and fungi, which predisposes a person to external ear infections.
Dry skin, vigorous ear cleaning or inserting foreign objects into the ear can all weaken the skin and increase the chance of infection.
The most common symptom of swimmer’s ear is moderate to severe ear pain when the outer part of the ear is pulled or pressed on.
Other symptoms include pain with chewing, red or swollen outer ear, swollen lymph nodes and possibly even discharge from the ear canal. Hearing may also be diminished.
After swimming, children, and adults, should turn their head to the side to allow water to run out of their ears. Some people find it useful to use over-the-counter drops that contain a diluted solution of alcohol immediately after swimming to prevent infection.
Be sure to check with your child’s primary care physician before you do this, though, as these drops can’t be used for all children.
For both infections, doctors will likely prescribe antibiotics.
If you suspect your child has an ear infection, visit his or her primary care physician for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Elmaraghy is interim chief of the Department of Otolaryngology, Nationwide Children’s Hospital. The Columbus hospital is a partner in care with Blanchard Valley Health System. Questions for medical experts may be sent to Weekend Doctor, The Courier, P.O. Box 609, Findlay, OH 45839.
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