Health Issues: Swimmer’s Ear

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Ear diagram.jpg

Anatomy of the Ear

By Dr. Michael Miles

Special to the Crier

I was driving through San Manuel the other day with a friend. He saw some kids walking in the afternoon heat and commented that he thought every child in town should be in the swimming pool on hot summer days like these. That comment generated this article.

Swimmer’s Ear is a common condition in summer months. It is so common that many ear, nose and throat doctors believe that every individual will experience some form of Swimmer’s Ear during their lifetime.

Basically, it is inflammation of the outer ear canal. This inflammation can be caused by an infection (either bacterial or fungal) or by some skin disease that swells up the canal.

Because of the abundance of nerves in the canal, it can be quite painful. The skin lining the external ear canal is also very thin. It can easily be torn, especially when introducing foreign objects like Q-tips, sticks, paper clips, hair pins and keys.

A person with excessive wax buildup is more likely to develop Swimmer’s Ear by trapping unsterile water in the canal. A person who jams wax back into the canal with Q-tips is also setting themselves up for this inflammatory condition.

Swimmer’s Ear (otitis externa) should not be confused with the other common cause for ear aches (otitis media). Otitis media is caused by pressure in the middle ear, usually trapped by the swelling shut of the eustachian tubes that connect the middle ear to the throat.

The ear is structured with an ear lobe (pinna) on the outside to “catch and funnel” the sound down the external canal. This external ear canal is the tube leading from the ear lobe to the ear drum. The eardrum separates the outer ear (external ear canal) and the middle ear. It is in the middle ear where very small bones transmit the sound vibrations to the inner ear where they are translated into brain signals as sound.

Unless the eardrum is punctured, the external canal is the only place that infected water can penetrate easily. When one gets exposed to questionable water, it is wise to rinse out the ears with fresh, clean water as soon as possible. If there is a high degree of suspicion that the ears have been infected, it would be helpful to pour some diluted hydrogen peroxide or other anti-microbial agent into the ears. However, one should never introduce anything into the ear canal if it is suspected that the eardrum has been punctured as it sets one up for a more serious infection. At times it may be necessary to consider oral antibiotics to treat Swimmer’s Ear.

A note of caution should be taken if a steroid cream is considered to bring down the inflammation. Steroid creams can enhance the development of fungal infections. Fungal infections are often distinctive from bacterial infections because they have large amounts of discharge that exits the ear. There are special treatments other than antibiotics to address fungal infections.

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