When my son began complaining about ear pain after a week-long swimming binge I knew exactly what it was, but not how to deal with it…swimmer’s ear.
Over the next few days, I took a google style crash course in swimmers ear — causes, symptoms, and treatments included — and I thought it could be helpful to put all that I learned into one place. I am not a health professional and this is not intended as medical advice, just an outline of the information I learned, steps we took, and products we used to naturally treat my son’s swimmer’s ear.
Symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear
The first thing I needed to know was what we were dealing with. We’d only had one previous run-in with ear pain and it was caused by pressure build up from a flight. The main differentiating factors this time were 1: the ear was sensitive to touch and 2: the pain expanded beyond the ear into his mouth. According to Mayo Clinic, kidshealth.org, WebMD, and other stops down the rabbit hole, these are the symptoms to look out for:
- itchiness in the ear canal (usually the first sign)
- pain that is worsened when the ear is touched or pulled
- clear odorless fluid drainage
- pus drainage (more advanced case)
- redness and or swelling of the ear canal (mild to extreme depending on severity)
- pain that extends to the jaw or mouth
- impaired hearing due to swelling or fluid blockage (mild to extreme depending on severity)
Causes and Description
Unlike most other ear infections, which occur in the inner or middle ear behind the eardrum, swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear. Simply put, swimmers ear occurs when bacteria begins to grow in the ear canal due to a continuously wet and dark environment. Because of their smaller ear canals, children are more likely to develop swimmer’s ear than adults. The infection is more likely to occur after swimming in the ocean, a lake, or a public pool where the water has a higher amount of bacteria.
Learning about Treatment
Once I knew what we were dealing with, it was time to treat it. Medical search engines and blog posts alike suggested over the counter or more natural home treatment as a first defense. From what I understand, healing should occur between 3-7 days from onset, and more severe cases may require antibiotic drops. I headed to the pharmacy to see which over-the-counter treatments were available. Most of the stuff on the shelf was for drying out the ear (rubbing alcohol based) and/or relieving pain. I also spoke to a nurse practitioner friend who suggested acetic acid (aka white vinegar) to stunt and reverse bacterial growth. Online searching suggested a 1:1 solution of white vinegar to rubbing alcohol, which aligned with what I had been seeing and learning. So I grabbed a bottle of each along with some dye-free Tylenol as an emergency back up since little guy was in quite a bit of pain (we didn’t end up needing it but I figure it’s good to have on hand). Before leaving the pharmacy I spoke to the pharmacist about the best option for pain treatment and she suggested simple olive oil to moisten the ear which may feel dry and irritated after treating with vinegar and alcohol.
Our Natual Treatment Plan
After I felt better versed in swimmer’s ear, we came up with our own treatment plan that included a mix of treatments for healing, pain management, and prevention.
- Homemade Drying Drops: I mixed 1 tsp of white vinegar with 1 tsp rubbing alcohol in a small glass bowl. I poured the solution into a spoon and then had my son lay his head down and I poured the solution into his ear until it spilled over, out of the canal. I had him sit with the drops for about 30 seconds as the solution bubbled down into his ear. Once the movement stopped, I had him sit up and bend his head slightly to the side to allow the remaining liquid to pour out.
- Arnica for Ear Pain: we used 5 pellets of the 30c arnica from Boiron
- Hylands Ear Ache Tablets for Pain: I wasn’t sure which would work better, so we alternated with these hyland tablets as well as the arnica. To be honest, I’m not sure which worked better. I think they both took the edge off, although he was still uncomfortable either way.
- Olive Oil Drops for Soothing and Healing: I wasn’t sure how olive oil would play into his treatment since I was a little worried that it would trap the moisture in. However, I learned that once the ear has been dried out with the drops, it can actually be painfully dry. The olive oil can coat and sooth it. It’s just theory, but I’m also thinking that the olive oil could act as a protectant against small amounts of water from the shower and such re-wetting the ear. We already had these Wallys Organic Ear Oil Drops around the house, which are made with healers like mullein and garlic to help support healthy ears. I think they would have worked fine, but I found these Kids Ear Drops at Sprouts which contained the same helpful ingredients, plus arnica. I thought the extra arnica might with the pain, so we went with those.
- Swim Cap for Prevention: the poor little guy got swimmer’s ear smack in the middle of his summer festivities. We had a friends trip planned the same week and I knew it would be torture for him to sit on the sidelines and watch his friends swim. I bought some waterproof ear plugs but there was no chance he’d let me push them up against his ear (OUCH!), so I went with plan B and got a slightly oversized swim cap that I could pull over his ears. We grabbed a junior size (ages 6-14) speedo cap from the store, but there may be others that are a better fit for covering ears, or cuter for the kiddos. We also had him wear puddle jumpers to keep his top half above water and instructed him not to dunk his head.
I’ve learned that the best treatment for swimmer’s ear is prevention! Prevention tips:
- The Homemade Drying Drops can be used after long or back to back swim days when you think water may have gotten stuck in the ear.
- Both oil-based ear drops mentioned above are also intended for maintaining healthy ears and can be used on occasion.
- Allowing ear wax to remain in the ear (no Q-tips!) also helps to keep the ears healthy and protected.
- And, of course, ear plugs or caps can be used any time you think the possibility of swimmer’s ear is particularly high.
to swimming made fun again,