It’s just gotten warm here in Maryland and we’ve been invited to the first pool party of the year this weekend — and so it begins. Since my sons appear to be part fish, we spend a lot of time at the public pool, at an aunt’s backyard pool, and in the wading pool in our own backyard. If you have a little fish at your house (or maybe you're the one with gills), whether you go to a pool, lake or ocean, it's important to know the signs and treatment of swimmer’s ear.

Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) is an infection of the outer ear, and symptoms include itching and redness in the ear canal, fluid drainage, and slight pain. A more advanced case includes pus discharge, pain when you push or pull on the ear, a decrease in hearing and a distinct feeling of fullness in the ear. The condition can also include intense pain, swelling in your ear or the lymph nodes in the neck, outer ear redness or swelling, and scaly or flaking skin on the outer ear.

Children are more prone to swimmer’s ear since their ear canal can trap water more easily, but swim caps and hearing aids can also trap water. Here are some other ways kids can become even more susceptible to swimmer's ear:

  • When people spend a lot of time in the pool, the ear canal becomes even more hospitable for bad bacteria. The ear’s natural defense system – its ear wax -- may have been thinned by excess moisture (blame the pool, showers, even high humidity). This breakdown in the body's own defenses makes you more susceptible to invasion.
  • Sometimes the skin has been broken or scraped by overzealous use of a cotton swab, hairpin or some other foreign object that has no business being so close to an ear drum. Broken or abraded skin makes a handy entry point for germs.
  • Your child might develop a rash in response to a hair product or the metal in those cute new earrings. Again, abraded skin means more opportunities for bacteria to invade.

To treat swimmer’s ear, try to keep the ear area as dry as possible, take over-the-counter pain relievers for any pain, and ensure you're not dealing with a ruptured ear drum (the pain, blood and loss of hearing would be the main tip-off for a ruptured ear drum, in which case get thee to a doctor). If your child has diabetes, a compromised immune system, or if symptoms are severe, see a physician or go to an emergency room ASAP.

These home remedies are also worth a try:

  •  Use a bulb syringe to rinse the ear with a warm saline solution, or a 50/50 mix of vinegar and warm water.
  • Press a warm washcloth to the ear to help relieve pain (adults can use a heating pad on the lowest setting).
  • Try the non-prescription ear drops Star-Otic or Swim-Ear (roll the container in your hand to warm it first) to ease any itching. After applying the warmed drops to the ear, have your child lie on his or her side with the affected ear up, and gently put a cotton ball in the ear opening to catch any excess fluid.
  • Avoid ear candling. Its efficacy is unproven and the process can cause injury.

If symptoms worsen after 3 days, your child develops a fever, or pus drains from the ear, seek medical help. Prescription treatment will involve ear drops that restore the ear canal’s proper acidity, an antibiotic, a steroid to calm inflammation, and/or an antifungal. Follow the treatment regimen for as long as it’s prescribed, even if symptoms have cleared up. During this time don’t aggravate the situation, so try not to get the ear wet, avoid using ear buds or ear plugs, avoid flying, swimming and scuba diving.