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The Difference Between Swimmers Ear and an Ear Infection


The other day when I went to pick my daughters up from swim practice, my 10 year old was perched on the edge of the pool while her friends were still swimming. I asked her coach what was up and she told me my daughter was complaining that her ear hurt. This was coming from a child who never complains at practice about anything.

She didn’t finish practice and I got her some ibuprofen to at least help with the pain until we could figure out was was going on. As the evening progressed her pain got more severe – to the point of tears. I did everything I knew to do – ibuprofen for the pain, Childrens Sudafed to help with the congestion, a warm compress, warm olive oil drops, and even Similasan Children’s Earache Relief Ear Drops.

Still no relief. Since I had no desire to sit in the Emergency Room unless absolutely necessary, I called the night nurse for our pediatrician’s office to get more ideas. When I mentioned that my daughter had been swimming she immediately thought of swimmers ear. She asked where the pain was coming from, could I see any redness, pus or discharge from my daughter’s ear canal (the answer was no), and did it hurt to touch the outer part of her ear (again, no). Swimmers ear is an infection in the ear canal and is usually caused by water pooling in the canal (kids with waxy ears are more prone to this).

She recommended that we treat it like both swimmers ear and an ear infection because the home treatment for swimmers ear would help if it were swimmers ear and would not make things worse if it was just a regular ear infection.

The home treatment for swimmers ear is to mix 1 part water to 1 part white vinegar in a glass container. Then use a dropper and fill the ear canal with the water/vinegar mix. Let it sit for 15 minutes then drain fluid with towels. If it is swimmers ear, this will give dramatic relief immediately.

Seeing as she got no relief from the water/vinegar mixture we determined that it was most likely an infection in the middle ear and the inflammation and pressure on her ear drum were making her so uncomfortable. At this point I had done everything I could do to make her comfortable and we decided to tough it out through the night until we could get in to her doctor’s office in the morning.

The ibuprofen was the only thing that reduced the pain to the point where she could sleep for a few hours at a time. The next morning we were the first ones at the doctors office and they were so kind to take her right in even though I didn’t have an appointment (I guess that is one benefit to using the same pediatrician for 12 years!).

They swabbed her throat for strep – just in case – and it came back negative. When the doctor examined her ear it was without a doubt an ear infection. They prescribed anti-biotics and we were instructed to continue the ibuprofen, heating pad, and sudafed as needed.

Day two and she seems to be feeling better, but still not healthy enough to go back to school. Looks like I may need some sick day sanity savers.

Remember that I am not a doctor, but after years of hearing swimmers ear vs. ear infection, I finally understand the difference and hope this makes it a bit easier for you to understand, too. When trying to determine what steps are needed to make your child more comfortable, when to call your doctor, or whether to send your child to school or not, information is definitely your best line of defense!

Photo originially from StockXchng, modified by me for explanation purposes.

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