Nina Shapiro, MD: Summer's in full swing. A seasonal nuisance both kids and adults experience is so-called "swimmer's ear" (technically known as "otitis externa" or "outer ear infection").
This oftentimes painful condition is caused by swelling, irritation, bacteria or fungus growing on the ear-canal skin. The most common source of this infection is increased moisture from humidity, warmth and water. When water gets trapped in the ear canal, bacteria that usually exist quietly in the skin begin to grow (they thrive in warm, moist environments). This causes swelling and pain. The most common symptoms are: itchiness; wet, sticky drainage from the ear; pain when touching the ear; and occasionally fever, hearing loss or facial swelling and redness. The infection can spread to the rest of the outer ear and face, so treatment is definitely in order. It usually involves an antibiotic or antifungal eardrop, prescribed by your doctor. It's also best to stay out of the water until the infection clears.
The best "treatment," however, is prevention. If you or your child is an avid swimmer, gently dry the outside of the ear with a towel after swimming. If your child hasn't had ear surgery, it's safe to use an over-the-counter alcohol eardrop, which helps absorb ear-canal moisture after swimming. If it still feels like water is trapped, set a hair dryer on a low, warm setting and gently dry the ear, holding the hair dryer at least six inches from the skin. Some kids like to wear earplugs, which, when properly fitted, may reduce the occurrence of waterlogged canals.
DO NOT use cotton-tipped applicators. These are actually the second most common culprit of "swimmer's ear," after swimming itself. While you may think these help "clean" the ear of wax, water and debris, they actually strip the delicate ear-canal skin of its protective lining, remove only a little bit of wax and push the rest into the deeper part of the ear canal.
We should all listen to our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers: "Nothing smaller than your elbow in your ear!"