A Pediatrician’s Tips for Preventing Ear Infections This Summer

Keeping cool while having fun is what summers are about. For many kids, that involves diving into pools, floating in ponds – or dancing in a sprinkler’s spray.

With that can come swimmer’s ear and painful ear infections. Natasha Bhagwandin, M.D., a pediatrician at Memorial Hermann Medical Group Pediatrics in Atascocita, answers our questions to help you avoid derailing your vacation time with sleepless nights and trips to the pediatrician.

Q: How do water activities put kids at risk?

A: There actually are two types of ear infections. Swimmer’s ear — formally known as acute otitis externa or external ear infection — peaks in summer. That’s because bacteria, typically Pseudomonas Aeruginosa and different forms of Staph (Staphylococcus), breed in warm moisture, such as pools and lakes. Despite their name, these external ear infections are in the canal that enters the ear, where water can collect and germs flourish. The other type of ear infection is a middle-ear infection, or otitis media. These occur year-round due to colds and other viruses that cause fluids to collect and fester deeper in the ear, behind the ear drum.

Q: How common are ear infections?

A: About 10 percent of children will develop an external ear infection at some point in their life. About 80 percent will have at least one episode of middle ear infection by the time they’re 2 years old.

Q: Why do kids get more ear infections than adults?

A: Children’s immune systems are still developing, so their bodies are less able to fight ailments. But middle ear infections become less common as children get older, since the anatomy of their ear changes. With age, their Eustachian tubes (from the middle ear to the back of the throat) lengthen and the angle changes, allowing fluids to drain more efficiently and making germs less likely to pool behind the eardrum.

Q: What are the signs/symptoms of an ear infection?

A: With swimmer’s ear, kids may tug their ears, complain about pain while chewing food or report muffled hearing. A thick, white or foul-smelling greenish pus might discharge from their ears. With either form of ear infection, ears may feel full and they might have a fever – which is defined as a temperature of 101 degrees F for children 6 months and older.

Q: When should you go to a physician?

A: If children have any of the above symptoms, you should seek medical care.

Q: How do physicians diagnose ear ailments?

A:  They rely on reported symptoms, a child’s medical history and a physical exam using an otoscope, a lighted instrument which can show redness, irritation or fluids in the ear canal.

Q: Should your child be treated with oral antibiotics?

A: Not necessarily. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends oral antibiotics, such as amoxicillin, should be used only with middle ear infections that don’t resolve on their own within 72 hours. External ear infections always need prescription ear drops containing antibiotics and steroids. Doctors recommend warming the bottle in your hand, shaking it to mix the suspension and then keeping the child’s head horizontal with the ear upward for one minute after applying.

Q: What’s the harm of taking oral antibiotics, just to be sure?

A: The danger in giving antibiotics – or stopping them because symptoms cease before the prescribed course is finished — is that the body becomes resistant to them. Then when the child needs antibiotics later in life for a more serious, possibly life-threatening illness those antibiotics may fail to work.

Q: What about DIY or “natural” solutions, such as diluted white vinegar or rubbing alcohol?

A: Avoid these. They often are done incorrectly and create more problems.

Q: How long does it take to heal – and when can your child swim again?

A: Both middle and external ear infections take 7-10 days to heal fully. Kids can return to water activities 2-3 days after completing treatment, as long as they’re pain-free and their ears have no discharge.

Q: What steps can parents take to thwart ear infections?

A: The most important step to prevent external ear infections is to dry the ear canal completely each time children get out of water, including baths. You can use a towel or a blow dryer on a very low setting for 30 to 60 seconds. Other aids include wearing swim caps that fit tightly across the ears. Parents should avoid regularly removing earwax, which serves as a protective barrier for the ear canal.

Q: What if my child has ear tubes?

A: Let doctors know if your child has ear tubes. The tiny hole created in the ear drum to thwart frequent infections may effect treatment options, which should be on a case-by-case basis. Learn more about how specialists use tubes to prevent ear infections.

To find a physician for your family, click here.

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Tashika Varma