While ear infections are common amongst infants and young children, for most they occur infrequently and the symptoms associated with the infection are generally mild in nature.
However, for parents of chronic ear infection sufferers and children who are susceptible to recurring ear infections caused by exposure to water, swim lessons may be a source of some frustration.
Before any decision to stop swimming lessons is made, parents should give adequate consideration to the type of ear infection the child is suffering, and to the differing symptoms, causes and treatments of the infection to ensure that the decision that is made, particularly in respect of swimming during the cooler months, is an informed one.
Two types of recurrent ear infections occur predominantly in children, namely swimmer’s ear and middle ear infections. There are solutions to treat, prevent and ward off each of these ailments, and neither infection should be used to justify a decision to interrupt a child’s water safety and aquatic education.
Swimmer’s ear is an infection/inflammation of the ear canal, commonly caused by embedded water or overzealous cleaning of the ear canal. The symptoms of this short-term ear infection include localised pain, itchiness and discharge which are able to be treated by thorough cleaning/drainage of the ear, or by the use of antibiotic drops in more severe cases. The onset of swimmer’s ear should not preclude a child from continuing their swimming lessons. The preventive measures for keeping the ear canal dry described below will minimise the risk of swimmer’s ear: these include:
- Avoid swimming in dirty or polluted water that is not properly filtered (i.e. lakes/rivers/dams);
- Use a barrier such as earplugs, swim caps, ear bands or shower caps to prevent the water entering the ear;
- Dry ears thoroughly after swimming or showering (tilt your head to the side to assist drainage);
- Use eardrops (eg. Aqua-Ear) subsequent to exposure to water to increase the rate of water evaporation in the ear canal and to make conditions less hospitable for further bacteria growth; and
- Avoid over-cleaning of the ears. Ear wax can be protective against swimmer’s ear, so aggressively removing or prodding with applicators may place the sufferer at more risk.
The second and more severe type of ear infection is that of the middle ear infection which is caused by a build-up of fluid in the ear canal behind the ear drum and can be triggered by a cold when the fluid cannot drain properly from the middle ear. Young children are most susceptible to middle ear infections as their ear passages are narrow which means that fluid secreted in the middle ear is sometimes trapped rather than drained to the throat. Symptoms include earache, headache, fever, loss of hearing and/or ear discharge for which, as a treatment in the first instance, oral antibiotics and eardrops are used. The use of grommets may be considered for a child who has suffers recurring middle ear infections. These tiny tubes are inserted by a physician, usually in a day-case procedure, to let air into the middle ear which in turn allows the fluid to drain from the middle ear.
Other precautionary measures such as the use of ear plugs and thorough drying of the ears must still be maintained to ensure the prevention of potential sources of germs from entering the middle ear. Custom made or silicone ear putty is available for these purposes. Safety and survival skills acquired as an outcome of a thorough and continual commitment to swim lessons are paramount for your child’s aquatic development.
Although ear infections are a temporary discomfort, they are able to be prevented and treated, and should not be regarded as a reason for interrupting your child’s swimming education. © 2010 Julia Ham/Hampton Swim School Pty Ltd