As summer approaches you're likely thinking of all the pleasant things that accompany the season: picnics, barbecues, cookouts... it's not nearly as much fun to think of the things that can go wrong. Mosquito bites, heat rash, and the painful earaches that go hand-in-hand with swimmer's ear. Luckily, we've got a few home remedies to keep the pain away.
Swimmer's ear is an unfortunate experience for anyone who's had to live with it. The infection occurs when water gets trapped in the ear canal and can be quite painful. "During the summer time, I see more swimmers ear than just about anything else in my practice," says Dr. Matthew Brennecke, MS, ND.
Dr. Brennecke is a Board-Certified Naturopathic Doctor practicing at the Rocky Mountain Wellness Clinic in Fort Collins, CO. He prefers using natural therapies to pharmaceutical medication when possible, so as to limit side effects to treatment -- and swimmer's ear is no exception.
"We often see swimmers ear during the summer, because, lo and behold, kids swim quite a bit during this time," he says. "It’s most often linked to several types of bacteria, including Pseudomonas, Proteus vulgaris, E. coli, and Staphylococcusaureus. But it can also come about when we have frequent water in the ear, trauma to the ear canal (cotton swabs), excessive impaction of cerumen (ear wax), or irritating substances getting in the canal itself."
The common infection can result in a myriad of symptoms, including pain, discharge and swelling. The most common treatments are antibiotics and steroids, but according to Dr. Brennecke, "There are some natural home remedies that are just as effective in treating swimmers ear."
1. Avoid Swimmers Ear Preemptively by Removing Water from the Ear
One of the best ways to treat swimmers ear is preemptively.
Dr. Eugene Chio, assistant professor of otolaryngology and ENT specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, suggests ensuring that water does not settle in the ear after swimming. "You can get the water out by simply shaking your head, using a hair dryer on a low setting or by adding a few drops of rubbing alcohol to the ear canal, which will help the water evaporate," he says. Prevention is key to making sure you don't have to suffer the symptoms of a full-blown infection.
2. Eradicate Bacteria
If you are a frequent sufferer of swimmers ear, you may wish to take stronger preemptive measures. Dr. Chio suggests mixing white vinegar with the rubbing alcohol before applying it. "The vinegar is a weak acid that makes the ear canal less hospitable for bacterial growth and the alcohol will dry away excess moisture," he says.
And the vinegar can also help keep symptoms at bay, especially when mild. According to Mark Sears, who owns the UK's number 1 swimming retailer, Swim Shop, "A few drops in the ear will reduce itching. Mix with some rubbing alcohol to aid recovery."
3. Use Pure Rubbing Alcohol as Post-Swimming Drops
Brett Hamilton, founder of Simple.be, has his own pre-emptive cure, learned from his father, who was a high school swimmer.
"Keep a small dropper bottle of isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol AKA rubbing alcohol) with your swim gear," he says. "After swimming, just tip your head sideways, drip about 5-7 drops of alcohol into your ear tube, wiggle your ear with your finger, and then tip your head the other way, so the alcohol (and water) can drain out."
Why does rubbing alcohol work?
"Surface tension is what keeps water stuck against your ear drum ear," he says. "Isopropyl alcohol eliminates the surface tension and allows all the water to drain out, and the alcohol evaporates quickly, leaving you with clean, dry ears and no residue."
He recommends using this technique every time you swim to make sure you never get swimmers ear -- this pre-emptive technique is perfect for frequent swimmers.
4. Use Olive Oil as a Home Remedy
If in spite of your work to prevent swimmers ear you are suffering from the symptoms, that doesn't necessarily mean that you need to take antibiotics or steroids.
Sears suggests olive oil as a great home remedy. "Olive oil has antiseptic properties that will reduce the infection," he says.
You can also increase the antiseptic properties by adding garlic to the oil. "Grate some garlic and soak in olive oil overnight, strain and warm (be careful it is not to hot) and take up to three drops to add to the ear," says Sears.
Dr. Brennecke suggests adding herbal ingredients, such as Allium sativum, Verbascum Thapsus, Calendulaofficinalis, Hypericum perforatum, lavender, and Vitamin E to the olive oil, dosing at 5 drops, 3 times a day. "The ingredients are antimicrobial and soothing and will kill any offending bacteria," he says.
5. Stave Off Infection with Changes to Diet
Many doctors are too quick to prescribe antibiotics in the face of infection, but the fact is that for people with a healthy immune system, you can often fight infection with a few natural boosts.
"As with any infection, usually eat as little as possible and drink clear fluids to stay hydrated," says Dr. Brennecke. He also recommends avoiding certain foods that can increase the amount of mucus naturally produced by the body, including dairy products, sugars, fats, vinegars, oranges, tomatoes, and wheat products; in place of these foods, add more Vitamin A and C, zinc, beta carotene and bioflavonoids to help your body fight off the infection.
What Not to Do
While there are a lot of natural ways to treat swimmers ear, there are also a few precautionary measures that might seem like a good idea but that can actually make the problem worse.
"Make sure to dry your ears with a hand towel and do not use Q-Tips!" warns Dr. Chio. "Q-Tips push ear wax deep into the ear canal and the ear wax wants out."
Sears also has a few "don'ts" to bear in mind -- particularly with regards to the over-use of earplugs and headphones, which he says can harbor harmful bacteria. Swimming frequently already increases your risk for swimmers ear, so reduce use of headphones this summer so as not to exacerbate the problem.
Once you've integrated these dos and don'ts, you'll soon be able to get back to enjoying your summer!
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Swimming image via Shutterstock: coronado