2003-07-11 / Columnists

Health & Harmony

By Dr. Nancy Gahles
Health & Harmony

Health & Harmony

nancy gahlesnancy gahles

By Dr. Nancy Gahles

Swimmer’s ear as it is commonly known to mothers is actually otitis externa. That is an inflammation of the external ear canal. How does this happen?

Water gets trapped in the external ear canal and doesn’t drain out. It lies stagnant and becomes a breeding ground for infection. The pain is most pronounced on movement of the ear lobe or on pressure to the ear. The outside of the ear can become red and swollen. This is a very painful condition. Although the association with swimming gives rise to the name, otitis externa is common during hot, humid weather when there is sufficient moisture in the air to contribute to infection as well as frequent exposure to water with showers. It has been my experience that children with buildup of ear wax have more frequent episodes as the water tends to accumulate behind the wax.

Dr. Nancy’s Advice

Ears should be cared for on a daily basis. Ears require very little care other than washing the outer ear. There is no need to clean inside the ear. A small amount of earwax is normal and may act as a barrier to infections. The body will naturally expel any excess wax. This can be wiped away from the outer canal. Never use a cotton swab to clean inside the ear canal. This can impact the wax and can damage the sensitive canal skin and/or the eardrum

Children or adults who are subject to ear wax buildup should use a commercial preparation of drops containing hydrogen peroxide or use plain peroxide. A few drops used on a daily basis for several days can loosen and dislodge any wax. CAUTION: Never place drops in an operated ear, an ear with a tube in it or a perforation ALWAYS consult with your physician before attempting home care.

I suggest that parents with children who have frequent ear infections should invest in an otoscope for home use. It is really much more simple than you think it is to look in an ear. It just takes practice, like anything else. Look in the ear at all different times. When they are well and when they are sick. Over time you will come to know what the difference is between a healthy ear and a sick ear. Knowledge is power and while you are not a doctor, often the best leads for doctors come from the parents, their intuition and, in this case, their examination findings. To eliminate decisions made from fear or ignorance a little information goes a long way in calming a mother at 1 a.m. who has a child frantically screaming in pain.

A simple earscope along with an informational book on the subject called THE EAR BOOK by David R. Marty, M.D. can be ordered from Lang E.N.T. Publishing, telephone orders accepted at 314-893-5545.

In my experience, a well educated patient is my best partner in their health care. Feel free to call on me to help you "look into" your child’s ear.


Before swimming, place a few drops of mineral oil, sweet oil or mullein oil in the ear to keep the water from penetrating inside.

After swimming, dry the ear with a facial tissue gently twisted at the end. To help evaporate any water that has entered the ear canal, use a product such as AuroDri or Swim Ear after swimming.

For people with frequent repeated episodes, the use of earplugs may be necessary. Whenever there are frequent episodes of infections I generally look to the entire health status of the person. In the case of children in the summer months, I would consider their diet. Hot dogs and hamburgers, white flour buns and sodas are not, in my opinion, nutritious foods for children. Choose the foods that are in season. Follow nature’s advice. Lots of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and quality proteins will stimulate a healthy immune system. Right eating; lots of good, restful sleep (the kind that comes from swimming, bike riding and playing outdoors); and plenty of hydration from drinking water in combination with a dose of sunshine should be sufficient to pump up your resistance to infection

Conservative Care

At the first sign of a problem and BEFORE there is serious pain or fever, try white vinegar drops (8 drops of 5% white vinegar to 2 teaspoons of water) or a product called PURE EAR ear drops by HEEL available at health food stores or at Health & Harmony.( Call Dr. Gahles). Mullein oil, a traditional Native American herb, is effective in reducing swelling and inflammation. Heat a few drops before placing in the ear. REMEMBER: Do not put any drops in a perforated ear.

A Typical Scenario

Skylar, age 6, was getting ready for bed. He complains of an earache as he lies his head on the pillow. He has not had a recent cold and has not had an ear infection since the winter. As you touch his ear, he squeals in pain and pulls away. He has no fever and has not complained all day except when you told him it was time to come out of the swimming pool. Take your otoscope and look into the ear. A key sign will be that the child feels that the instrument hurts his ear. That is because the irritation is in the external canal. As you peer inside you will see that it is red and swollen but the drum is normal. Yes, you will be able to see this!! Now, as the fear dissipates, you can plan your course of action. From strength, not fear.

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