External ear infections

May 15, 2008 by Martin Guilbert

Les otites du baigneur

For most, swimming means heat, sunshine, good times and vacation! For others, swimmer’s ear infections may bring a dark cloud over this picture. It’s rather common, affecting roughly one person out of a hundred each year and one person out of ten at one point in their lives.

External ear infections, also known as swimmer’s ear infections, affect the external auditory canal. It is generally caused by an alteration of the pH in the ear, becoming more basic, increasing the risk of unwanted micro-organism growth. In 90% of all cases, these infections are caused by bacteria, but in rare cases fungi are to blame.

The name, swimmer’s ear infection, was given, because they often affect swimmers. Their ears are regularly exposed to water, as such their ear wax is altered which is one of the principal risk factors of external ear infections. Wax is a natural barrier for humidity and infections due to its slightly acidic nature which limits unwanted microorganism growth. Swimming is not the only risky behaviour, for example, excessive cleaning of ears with Q-tips or irrigation systems can also lead to this type of problem. Also, ear trauma due to vigorous cleaning, wearing unclean hearing aids, stress, excessive transpiration and allergic reactions are potential causes of external ear infections.

Swimmer’s ear infections are generally characterised by symptoms such as pus, redness and pain. In some cases, the following symptoms are possible: inflammation, drainage and possibly a hearing loss caused by the partial blockage of the ear canal. A medical consultation is crucial, especially if it’s the first time. The diagnostic must be precise and the appropriate treatment must be used for the specific infection. In any case, the patient must avoid contact with water for at least 10 days, but preferably for 2 to 4 weeks.

Les otites du baigneur

Certain preventive measures can be used with patients who are at greater risk of external ear infections. First, it is preferable to avoid all excessive ear cleaning methods (particularly Q-tips). Also, after swimming, the ear should be dried off using a towel or hair dryer (this is the most effective option). In addition, the use of acidic drops can be beneficial, because it lowers the pH in the ear and prevents bacterial and fungal growth. It is recommended to put 4 to 6 drops of Buro-Sol (aluminum acetate) or a homemade solution (1/3 vinegar and 2/3 rubbing alcohol) before swimming, after swimming, before bed or at all three times. One must be prudent with these suggestions if they have drains in their eardrums and should avoid them completely if they suspect a problem with the integrity of their eardrum. Also, swimmer’s ear plugs which are moulded to the ear by an audioprosthetist may be encouraged during water activities. In addition, the quality of the water may be linked to the incidences of ear infections.

Finally, over the counter medication can also be used to treat external ear infections. One must necessarily consult the pharmacist so that he can determine if these medications are appropriate. In fact, certain symptoms such as balance problems, bleeding or pus in the ears, hearing loss, fever or suspicion of trauma are alarming and require a rapid consultation with a doctor. On the other hand, for patients who have had several external ear infections and recognise the symptoms, two non-prescription products can be used: the antibiotic Polysporin, 1 to 2 drops 2 to 4 times a day and the acidic drops Buro-Sol, 4 to 6 drops 4 times a day. Both products are equivalent and are appropriate for mild to moderate ear infections.

For more information, don’t hesitate to consult your pharmacist!