"Ouch! My ear hurts, Mom." And it's the middle of summer. Chances are your child is suffering from otitis externa. Known also as "swimmer's ear," otitis externa is an infection of the ear canal. Although this condition can occur throughout the year, it usually arises in the summer because of the higher humidity, increased perspiration, and ... swimming.
The ear canal is the narrow tube-like structure leading to the ear drum. Its main function is to direct sound waves toward the eardrum. To do this, the ear canal must remain open and infection-free. The ear canal accomplishes this in a number of ways: it has a self-cleaning mechanism that prevents keratin (a component of dead cells) shed by the skin of the ear canal from accumulating; it has an acidic environment that inhibits the growth of most pathogenic organisms (i.e., bacteria that can cause problems); and it has cerumen (earwax), which has anti-bacterial properties. Despite these defenses, the ear canal is still prone to developing infection.
The main reason infections occur is that the ear canal, being a narrow tube, retains moisture. The persistent moisture soaks up acid. This changes the acid level in the canal so it's more favorable to the growth of harmful bacteria. The shed keratin in the ear canal absorbs moisture and provides a good culture medium for bacteria. The moisture also softens or macerates the skin.
Children who are most susceptible to developing otitis externa are swimmers (hence the name, "swimmer's ear"), children who live in moist environments, and children who retain water in the canals because of narrowing of the canal or too much earwax stuck in the canal. Hearing aids also encourage the retention of moisture, which increases the likelihood of infection.
Otitis externa can also develop from trauma to the ear canal, usually self-inflicted. Scratching or abrading the ear canal with a Q-tip, a finger, a bobby-pin, etc., is the usual cause.
Otitis externa usually begins with discomfort and itching, followed by tenderness and pain. Children may also complain of fullness and pressure sensation in the ear. In more severe cases, the child may complain of hearing loss due to the swelling and blockage. The infection is usually limited to the ear canal with no systemic findings such as fever or chills. Swimmer's ear doesn't cause middle ear infections. There's not relationship between the two except they are both infections of the ear -- but different parts of the ear.
When the doctor looks into the ear canal of an infected ear it looks red. There may be a small amount of a sticky whitish-gray material. This sticky stuff rarely drains from the ear. In severe cases, the ear canal will swell almost completely shut.
Initial treatment consists of topical otic (ear) drops. A variety of solutions are available, most a combination of antibiotics (usually polymyxin and neomycin) and steroids. Acetic acid drops, with or without steroids, are also frequently used. The dilute acetic acid restores the acidity of the ear canal, which kills Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the bacteria that usually causes the problem. Ophthalmic (eye) drops have become popular in the treatment of otitis externa. Most contain an antibiotic and steroid, often at a higher concentration than the otic drops.
Careful and thorough cleaning of the ear canal by the physician is essential. Removal of debris and infected material will allow the drops to reach the skin directly. When the ear canal is swollen shut, insertion of a wick may be needed. The wick acts like a sponge, drawing the drops deep into the ear canal. Oral antibiotics are usually not needed for the treatment of otitis external except in persistent cases.
For children inclined to repeated episodes, prevention of otitis externa begins with the use of ear plugs when bathing or swimming. Drops containing acetic acid and alcohol (the alcohol helps to dry the ear) are available over-the-counter and may be used routinely after swimming. Gentle drying of the ear canals with a blow dryer after bathing can be helpful. Avoid scratching the ear canals or over vigorous cleaning with Q-tips. Children with hearing aids, who have had repeated episodes of otitis external should consider having the hearing aids vented to improve ventilation of the ear canal.
Dr. Moss is an Ear-Nose-and-Throat specialist practicing in Jasper, IN. Many of his patients are children.
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