If your mom ever put alcohol drops in your ear after a long day in the pool or the lake, you have firsthand knowledge of one of the most popular methods of preventing swimmer’s ear.
Also known as otitis externa, swimmer’s ear is a painful infection of the ear canal. It often develops when dirty water gets down into the canal and bacteria grow, causing pain and swelling.
You can tell you’ve got it if your ear starts itching or swelling, or if you’re getting some discharge from your ear. Pain is another common symptom. And if you have a young child, you might notice her pulling on her ear.
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But while Mom’s home remedy is a pretty good way to dry out the ear canal and prevent infections, it’s not the best way to treat an existing swimmer’s ear infection.
“Alcohol kills infection, but it dries and is exquisitely painful,” says Dr. Lisa Asta, a spokeswoman with the American Academy of Pediatrics and a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco.
Once it becomes clear that something is wrong, your best bet is to see a doctor.
“If you get to the point where you have significant swelling of the ear canal, we’re going to use antibiotics,” Dr. Asta says.
A course of antibiotic drops will drive the pain and swelling away, with most infections clearing up in about a week.
If you or your child seems especially prone to getting swimmer’s ear, you may just want to stay out of the water as much as you can—or wear earplugs.
But barring that, you want to keep the ear canal as dry as possible, or dry it out after it gets wet.
A few drops of alcohol do work well as a prevention technique, as does white vinegar. So does careful drying of the ear canal. Dr. Duane Johnson, a member of the board of directors for the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, notes that you can gently wave a hair dryer on the “cool” setting over the ear or use a specially designed ear dryer
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And children may enjoy shaking their heads like a dog to get the water out. “Have them hop on one foot,” suggests Dr. Asta.
Children who have tubes in their ears need to be especially careful to keep their ears dry, Dr. Johnson cautions. Water and infection can get trapped around the tube.
What not to do
“You never want to stick anything in the ear canal,” says Dr. Asta. “We know people do it but we don’t recommend it.”
And that includes what Dr. Johnson calls “the terrible Q-tip.
“That’s where people get into trouble,” he says. “When you start sticking things down in there, you can not only scratch the ear canal, but if there’s wax, you can end up packing that in. The water gets trapped behind the wax, and you’ve just created another place for that water to grow infection.”