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Going on holiday and getting an ear infection will spoil your fun. You've saved up for months and been looking forward to it for ages but you end up miserable, in pain and unable to sleep. You can't go in the pool and have to stay off the lager because you are on antibiotics. It's making you grumpy and you shout at the children. You make them cry. Next you have an argument with your husband/wife/mother-in-law about your shoes/her hair/the dinner. You wish you had had found out how to prevent ear infections before you went on holiday.
There are two main reasons why holidaymakers are more likely to get ear infections.
Change in climate. If you are somewhere hot then you will sweat more. Your ears will become hot, humid micro-environments which are ideal for bacteria and fungi to set up home and start a family.
Change in behaviour. Many people will swim more whilst on holiday than they do at home. Waterlogging of the ears can occur and a bucketful of bacteria is poured in when you go in the sea. The water breaks downs the body's natural barrier against infection by softening the skin. This allows the nasty bacteria through into the deeper layers where they can cause infection. Spending a long time in the pool or popping in and out leads to the ears not drying out for hours. This increases the chance of an infection. Pool water often contains chlorine which can irritate and inflame the delicate skin of the ear. This increases the risk of infection. Warm tropical waters are particularly notorious for causing problems. The higher temperature leads to the bugs having millions of babies and the water having a high number of bacteria in it.
Holiday related ear infections are so common someone has come up with a name for them. 'Mediterranean Ear'.
Here's Dr Toby Bateson's top 5 kick-ass tips to prevent ear infections preventing a happy holiday;
1) Sort your ears out before you go away. If you often get itchy or sore ears then go and see your doctor before you travel. You might be getting eczema or another type of dermatitis in your ears which will make you more likely to get ear infections on holiday. Dermatitis weakens the skin's protection against infection by allowing bugs in. Dermatitis means inflammation of the skin. It makes the skin more likely to crack and break, creating breaches in the strong outer layer which usually keeps the nasties out. An examination of the ear by a good doctor should reveal an underlying disorder which needs treating. Sometimes people have grumbling outer ear infections which go on and on. This is chronic otitis externa. A short course of drops containing an antibiotic and a steroid should get it under control. This kills bacteria and reduces inflammation and soreness. If you have mild chronic otitis externa this can flare up whilst on holiday. Sore ears invite probing fingers and biro lids. DON'T poke anything in your ears, especially when sore. The delicate skin is easily broken and you will make the problem much worse. Impacted wax can become wet whilst swimming and take a long time to dry out. This can also lead to ear infections. If you have a problem with wax you might need drops to soften it and then microsuction to remove the wax. Your doctor will refer you for this if you need it, or you can arrange it privately.
DON'T get your ears syringed because there is a risk of permanent tinnitus and suctioning is a much better option.
2) Take an anti-inflammatory if you have a cold or get sore ears. The Eustachian tubes are the channels which drain the air space in your middle ear. They get rid of the gubbins which will build up otherwise. A cold can cause the tubes to swell and close up resulting in fluid building up in the ear. This is why having a cold can make your ears pop; the popping sound is the Eustachian tube opening under pressure. The fluid can become infected and cause otitis media (middle ear infection). You could take an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen with or without a decongestant. By doing this you may be able to stop a cold developing into a painful middle ear infection. You will do this by keeping your tubes open and preventing the build up of fluid. Take them regularly in order to keep the swelling under control. Always make sure you read the packet and follow the instructions.
After swimming rinse your ears out with drinking water or surgical alcohol. This will get rid of the bacteria, dirt and any chemicals which irritate and inflame your ear canals. Take a bottle with you so you can do it as soon as you get out of the water. (That was a bonus Kick-Ass Tip; 4 for the price of 3!)
3) Use antibacterial swimming ear plugs. These have a double action against 'swimmer's ear'; ear infections from swimming. By keeping water out and killing germs at the same time they reduce the chance of you getting ear infections. Many types of earplugs are not as effective at preventing swimmer's ear, often because they are not waterproof. This is the case with foam ear plugs. Most other types are not ideal because they are not bacterial. ZenPlugs are ideal as they are waterproof and antibacterial. They are custom moulded to your ears so are comfortable and effective at keeping water out. The antibacterial effect lasts as long as the earplugs. It is effective against MRSA, pseudomonas and all other bacteria which cause ear infections. Using a cord to connect them means that you won't lose them if you drop them in the sea. They are also available in bright colours so you can spot them easily.
Follow these tips and you are much more likely to have healthy ears whilst on holiday. Unfortunately they won't stop the hangover you will have after 2 bottles of wine, 3 cocktails and a few tequila slammers.
Please note that this article does not constitute medical advice. Please visit your doctor if you think you might have an ear disorder. Always read all information included with medication before use.
Dr Toby Bateson
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