What’s the difference between swimmer’s ear and ear infection?
By Nicholas Dodaro, M.D., ABEM, FACEP
June 14, 2016
This is the time of year when you and your little ones are outside enjoying the warm, sunny weather. Your family may be taking trips to the beach, lake or your neighborhood pool. While this time of year brings about a lot of good memories, one you won’t want to remember is swimmer’s ear. Did you know that swimmer’s ear is different from a common ear infection? While they can both cause pain and discomfort, the symptoms and treatments can also differ. Whether it’s swimmer’s ear or another ear infection, urgent care facilities like GuideWell Emergency Doctors can help.
What Causes Swimmer’s Ear?
It’s not always what you think. Swimmer's ear is an inflammation of the ear canal. The term comes from the fact that it often occurs in children and young adults who swim frequently, which is why it’s more common in the summer. Summer also is a time of year when humidity changes the skin in the ear canal, thus also increasing chances of infection.
Excessive moisture in the ear from showering, swimming in polluted water or improper cleaning of the ear can also be a culprit. The moisture can cause the skin inside the ear canal to become chafed, dry and cracked.
If not cared for, an inflammation of the skin can sometimes lead to an infection that can be very painful. Some of the symptoms to recognize are:
Watery discharge from the ear
Itching inside the ear
Severe pain and tenderness in the ear, especially when moving the head or when gently pulling on the earlobe
A yellowish discharge from the ear with an unpleasant smell
Temporarily muffled hearing (caused by blockage)
You should seek treatment if you or your child have the following:
You have severe pain in your ear
You’re experiencing symptoms of an ear infection
You have dizziness or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
You notice a rash on your scalp or near your ear
What is an Ear Infection?
Ear infections are one of the most common conditions children experience. The primary reason for this is due to the under development of the Eustachian tubes. These tubes are located behind the nose and connect the middle ear to the back of the throat and help to drain fluid from the ear. In children, these tubes tend to be short and lay horizontally rather than vertically. The passageway is also narrow, so fluid tends to drain slowly, lay stagnant and block the tubes. Over time, bacteria can grow and infection ensues. This type of ear infection is more common in the winter and is often associated with a cold, nasal congestion, allergies or upper respiratory infection. The mucus buildup in the nasal passages causes inflammation and further prevents the ears from draining.
Some other causes of ear infections include enlarged adenoids and irritation from allergens such as pollen and cigarette smoke. It is not uncommon for a child in this situation to have tubes placed in the ears. Tiny tubes are placed in the ears to assist in the drainage of fluid, and in most cases fall out on their own. This minor, outpatient procedure takes about 10 minutes and requires very little recovery.
Signs, Symptoms and Treatment
If your child is congested for more than a few days, be on the lookout for the following:
Complaints of ear pain or pain when lying down
Crankiness, irritability, increased crying
Fever - can be very high
Pulling on the ear or fluid draining from the ear
The doctor is truly the only one who can diagnose an ear infection, particularly in very small children who cannot fully express themselves. In most cases, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics and, if you ask, numbing ear drops for pain. Using a saline solution for the nose may help clear out nasal congestion and can also help remove some of the buildup. Children usually begin to feel better after a few days on the antibiotics.
GuideWell Emergency Doctors can help if you or your child is suffering from an ear infection. We offer a wide range of services to meet your unscheduled medical needs. With quality pediatric and adult care, our conveniently located centers provide you high-quality medical assistance for your illness or injury.