Ear infections are a common cause of ear pain and discomfort. They affect children and adults alike. Sometimes a cause is obvious, such as a cold or frequent swimming but often no cause is found.
There are three types of ear infections. The first is outer ear infection, otitis externa, also known as swimmers' ear. There is also middle ear infection (otitis media) and inner ear infection (labyrinthitis). Otitis externa consists of inflammation in the ear canal. It results in itching, soreness, pain, redness, discharge and muffled hearing. It is often caused by prolonged or repeated immersion in water such as in those training for a triathlon. Other causes include;
1) Soapy water. Soap dissolves the waxy protective layer lining the ear canal. This allows bacteria to penetrate and infect the skin (squamous epithelium). Solution; avoid soapy water. This is important in the early stages when ears start to feel sore, wear decent waterproof ear plugs. ZenPlugs are spot-on because they are comfortable and molded to your ears. They are even antibacterial, reducing the risk of infections further. If you do get soapy water in your ears rinse with clean water after exposure.
2) Warm sea water. Sea water is high in bacteria. The water in tropical oceans is warmer making it an even better breeding ground for bacteria. The warmth also dissolves the waxy protective layer, allowing passage of the high bacterial load. People doing watersports are able to spend longer in the sea in such conditions. This sometimes leading to chronic severe ear infections. Solution; avoid prolonged immersion, wear swimming ear plugs and a head band or neoprene cap pulled low. Wash ears with clean water or alcohol. This also reduces the risk of surfers' ear.
3) Dirty fingers. Ears which have been irritated by soap, perfumes or sea water invite the ear's owner to poke fingers, biros and keys into the ear. This further damages the delicate, protective, superficial layer of skin. This normally stops bacteria penetrating into the deeper skin (dermis) below. This is the site where the infection takes hold. Solution; sufferers shouldn't put anything smaller than their elbow in their ear.
Many of these causes are preventable. Chronic cases are often associated with chronic skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Treatment of otitis externa starts with avoiding any causative factors. A course of ear drops containing a combination of antibiotics such as gentamicin may be required. They may also contain steroids and an antifungal agent such as acetic acid (vinegar). The best drops are prescription only so sufferers will need to visit their doctor or a registered medical practitioner. The dosage and duration of the course will depend on the preparation prescribed.
Prevention is better than cure; in many cases otitis externa can be avoided if the ears are cared for and good aural hygiene is maintained.