Spending time in the water during the summer is one of the most common and practical ways to find relief from the heat.
However, as fun and enjoyable as a day splashing around in lakes, pools or oceans can be, there are certain precautions you should take to avoid a common ailment known as swimmer's ear, which occurs when water gets trapped in the ear for long periods of time.
“Swimmer's ear is an infection of the ear canal,” said Dr. Karthik Balakrishnan, a pediatric otolaryngology specialist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
The malady is most often caused by bacteria and can impact people of all ages, Balakrishnan explained, adding that it can be very painful.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), swimmer's ear results in an estimated 2.4 million health care visits every year. Germs found at pools and at other recreational water venues are one of the most common causes of the ailment.
People don’t have to be swimming to contract swimmer’s ear. Anytime someone is exposed to moisture for a prolonged period, such as when you when you’re washing your hair in the shower, that could be enough for symptoms to develop.
Swimmer's ear, also called otitis externa, differs from the middle ear infections more common in children because it primarily affects the outer ear. The moist environment created by the water provides an ideal setting for bacteria to grow.
There are several ways to prepare ahead of time to reduce the risk of swimmer’s ear. One of the easiest methods is simply to use a bathing cap or ear plugs, although disposable or washable ear plugs may work best.
“It’s important to know that if the ear plugs themselves are colonized with bacteria, then every time you stick the ear plug back in you’re just reintroducing bacteria,” Balakrishnan said.
Other steps include drying ears thoroughly after swimming or showering with a towel, tilting your head to allow water to escape the ear canal and pulling on your earlobe in different directions to help water drain out.
For any lingering water in the ear canal, the CDC recommends using a hair dryer several inches from your ear on the lowest heat and speed setting to move air and reduce moisture within the ear canal.
Since ear wax helps protect the ear from bacteria, people should avoid trying to remove it, especially with Q-tips. If too much ear wax is causing a sensation that the ear is blocked, it is recommended that you visit your doctor.
If left untreated, complications from swimmer's ear include hearing loss, recurring ear infections and even bone or cartilage damage, the American Academy of Otolaryngology states.
In cases of swimmer's ear when the pain is mild, patients can simply use Tylenol or Motrin to mitigate discomfort. In many cases, antibiotics in the form of ear drops will likely be required to limit bacterial growth and prevent inflammation.
There are several signs that people should seek medical help right away if conditions worsen. These include if the external ear turning red or swollen or if the pain is very severe.
In some rare cases, if someone has immune problems or diabetes, the infection can spread outside the ear canal and affect some of the surrounding nerves, according to Balakrishnan.
For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.