by Dennis A. Colucci, Au.D., M.A., FAAA
Unlike the ear infection that is caused by a cold or flu, the summer ear infection, caused by swimming and foreign objects making their way into your child’s ear, is quite different and requires different care. With a little awareness of the potential problems, parents can stay in front of the crisis and reduce their child’s discomfort, while keeping summer going full speed ahead.
Frequent Causes of Summer Infections
The primary cause of ear canal infections in children during summer is water and wax in the ear canal that is trapped, stays wet, and invites bacteria or fungal growth. There are a number of factors that increase the risk for this scenario. The first is the fact that children have small ear canals and, for some, wax will not come out naturally. Normally, skin from the center of the eardrum grows outward to push all the debris out of the ear and in a month the skin that started at the eardrum is at the opening of the ear canal. We call this migration. However, in some cases, the ear canal twists sharply, is small, or has a small bottleneck in the middle that prevents this from happening. If your child had their pediatrician or ear, nose and throat (ENT) physician pull wax out of his or her ear in the past for a clog, maybe a trip to the pediatrician at the beginning of summer, before the activities start, is a good idea. Wax problems do not go away; they reoccur, and they can cause hearing loss.
The second is the unsuspecting infection that occurs because of exposure to bacteria or fungus. The infection starts and gets into the skin of the ear canal, sometimes by a scratch from a fingernail or other object that breaks the skin. The third type occurs when a child puts a bead, kernel of corn, a cotton ball, a dry bean or small toy part in their ear while playing, and it gets stuck. I have even seen dead water bugs in the canal!
How To Identify the Problem
While the infection is festering, the child is unaware of the impeding pain and it could be days to a week or so before the problem crops up. In all of these cases, children tug at their ears, complain of itching and a plugged ear, may have hearing loss (not a “listening” problem), and universally, tugging the ear up and down cause discomfort or clogs the ears even more. In the more advanced cases, the child will have a temperature and severe pain.
What To Do
In children that have tubes in the eardrums from prior infection behind the drum, known as Otitis Media (middle ear infection), swimming is okay as long as they don’t dive more than two feet. Research has shown that infection will happen with our without swim molds or eardrops. Keeping soapy water out of the ear is also an important precaution. In children with sensitivity in the canal, Westone Laboratories makes the best ear plugs on the planet (AquaNot™ Swimplugs) and any Audiologist can precision-make them for your child. They float, come with a string between them, and are made in bright colors. But once the problem has occurred, the solution is an expeditious trip to the pediatrician or ENT specialist. The typical treatment will be to remove any clogging and provide eardrops; then, it’s no swimming for at least a week, or until the physician clears the condition… but once the problem is resolved? Game on. M