Don’t let swimmer’s ear spoil your summer

By Alexandra Caracitas, D.O.

Jersey summers include plenty of water. Unfortunately, this can also lead to an external ear infection — otitis externa, or OE — also known as “swimmer’s ear.”

Swimmer’s ear is a skin infection limited to the external ear canal caused by ear-water exposure, scratching the ear with a cotton-tipped applicator or other device (such as a hair pin), or something foreign entering the ear canal — sand, dirt, even small bugs. OE causes pain, ear drainage, and sometimes hearing loss.

Treatment is straightforward, but if not treated early or correctly, OE can get complicated.The majority of patients with OE do not require oral antibiotics.

OE is correctly treated by cleaning the ear under otoscopic, or microscopic, guidance by a physician, and then having the patient apply ear drops once or twice daily for several days.

During and immediately after treatment, the patient should prevent any water (shower, lake, pool, ocean) from entering the ear by using commercially available water protection ear plugs or by using cotton balls in the ear coated with petrolatum jelly to make them waterproof. Dry cotton in the ears will very effectively wick the water into the ear canals, accomplishing exactly the opposite of the goal.

If the ear is infected for too long or the patient has an underlying serious medical problem that interferes with wound healing, such as diabetes, the surrounding tissues can get infected, and then treatment would include oral antibiotics.When the canal is quite swollen, a cotton wick specifically designed for this purpose should be used to facilitate drainage and permit application of topical medication.

Sometimes the initial bacterial infection in the ear canal is overrun by a fungus. Fungal OE itches like crazy. Regular antibiotic ear drops are not an effective treatment for fungal OE.Your doctor should clean the ear very thoroughly, and then medications that are effective for fungal organisms are applied to the ear, either by the doctor and/or by the patient at home.Water protection is very important in these cases, as fungi love a moist, dark, warm environment.

If you or your child do not have OE but are predisposed to it, you should wear ear plugs and perhaps even a bathing cap or neoprene ear band to protect your ears when you swim or bathe.You should also shake any water that has entered the ear canal out.Additionally, if your ear drum is intact — no perforation or hole or tube — an acidifying agent (like Burow’s otic solution) with 2 percent acetic acid can be used to help eliminate any remaining water in the ear.

Dr.Alexandra Caracitas is a boardcertified family medicine physician, enabling her to diagnose and treat most illnesses and medical conditions for the whole family. Her office is located in Raritan Bay Medical Center’s Medical Pavilion at Perth Amboy, 516 Lawrie St. She accepts most medical insurances, is accepting new patients and speaks fluent Portuguese and Spanish. Saturday appointments are available, call 732-324-4860.