Every spring and summer the ear doctor sees many cases of swimmer's ear. The medical term is External Otitis or simply infection of the outer ear. The basic cause of the problem is getting water in the ear. The water sits in the ear canal and irritates the skin. This allows a break in the protective skin barrier. Bacteria enter the skin and set up infection. Most of these infections are due to a combination of bacteria and fungus. Usually a day or two after swimming the patient complains of ear pain, itching, and drainage. He may have a low grade fever, hearing loss and ringing in the ear. The ear is very tender to the touch.
Most home remedies will only make the problem worse. One popular choice is warm sweet oil dropped into the ear. The warmth of the oil makes the ear feel better, but the fungus grows on the sweet oil.
When the patient sees the doctor, he will probably get a combination of ear drops and oral antibiotics. The antibiotics help to fight the infection under the skin and the ear drops fight the infection on the surface of the skin.
There are many types of prescription ear drops on the market, all containing one or more of the following ingredients:
- Antibacterial/antifungal medications, Neomycin, Polymycin, Colistin, Cipro.
- Acidic medium — Acetic acid (better known as vinegar) or boric acid.
- Steroid medications — Cortisone or Dexamethasone (this helps to decrease swelling and inflammation).
Along with the medication the patient will be instructed to keep all water out of the ear and to use a heating pad for a few days. If there is extreme pain, a pain medication may be given.
Most of the time people start to feel better three to four days after treatment starts. The infection will take a few weeks to clear up. Sometimes the infections are very stubborn and take longer to heal. Occasionally a patient needs hospital admission with intravenous antibiotics to control the infection. In diabetes this type of infection can be very serious and even fatal.
Once the infection is controlled the patient has to be careful about getting water in the ears for several weeks. If he is going swimming a couple of drops of vinegar in alcohol used after swimming should keep the ear dry and infection free.
Formula for swim ear drops
1 Part white vinegar
3 Parts rubbing alcohol