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Ear Infections and Swimming…Is there a connection?
Oct 7, 2019

I frequently hear things from parents such as, “My son can’t take swim lessons because he gets ear infections easily”, and “My daughter can’t swim because she has an ear infection”. As someone who has spent her life coaching and teaching in the swimming industry, but also worked in the medical field, it pains me to think of kiddos missing time in the water due to misinformation.

I am also a mother of four and want my own children to be in the water, swimming, as much as possible! I was (and still am) blessed with a BRILLIANT, AMAZING pediatrician in the Texas Children’s Pediatric Group that feels strongly about children taking swim lessons…early and often! Anytime one of my children had an ear infection, he would tell me whether or not swimming would affect them.

If your child is diagnosed with an ear infection, chances are that diagnosis isn't going to keep them from wanting to get in the water. However, as a parent, I understand that you may be thinking, "is it safe even safe for my child to get in the pool?" To answer your question, most of the time it is perfectly safe. But don't just take my word for it! I asked an expert to weigh in on this topic with us so that you have a bit more peace of mind.

 

quotesEar infections can be caused by leaving contaminated water in the ear after swimming. This infection, known as “swimmer's ear” or otitis externa, is not the same as the common childhood middle ear infection. The infection occurs in the outer ear canal and can cause pain and discomfort for swimmers of all ages.

Swimmer’s Ear is commonly the infection people discuss when talking about swimming. Despite being called “swimmer’s ear” by some, it can occur for many different reasons. The ear canal is a dark place, a warm place, and by getting water trapped in the ear canal, a moist place. This makes it the perfect environment for an infection. Otitis externa is frequently seen after swimming, but may also be associated with wax impactions, use of Q-tips, or a foreign body in the ear. The most common symptom is pain, sometimes severe, particularly with movement of the ear.

Otitis Media (OM), otherwise known as an inner ear infection, is most commonly what we think of when we hear the term "ear infection". It is an infection of the middle ear, the area behind the tympanic membrane or "eardrum". OM usually onsets quickly and you know your child most likely has it when they tell you, "My ear is hurting" or if they are pulling on their ear. Sometimes your child will even have a fever. This typically results in a trip to the pediatrician’s office, a course of antibiotics, and a recommendation for Tylenol or Motrin to be given to help alleviate any pain.

But what does any of this have to do with swimming? Thankfully nothing too much! Swimming is not usually considered a cause of middle ear infections. There is no evidence to suggest swimming causes, or places children at higher risk for, middle ear infections. Your child is very unlikely to be affected by attending swim class. Infections of the middle ear are generally closed from outside irritants. Unless your primary care provider has told you your child has ruptured their ear drum, or is having drainage, it should be safe to swim. Just make sure you mention to your provider that your child has a swim lesson.

Most of the time, he or she will tell you, "no problem, they don't need to miss it". OM is often confused with OE, or Otitis Externa, which is an infection of the actual ear canal (sometimes referred to as an outer ear infection). OE would require just a little bit of time out of the water to allow your child's ear canal to heal properly. Again, confirm with your pediatrician which type of ear infection your child has because it most likely is the kind that is safe to be in the water with. Moral of the story, an ear infection doesn't necessarily mean you have to disrupt your swimming routine! - Shelby Guthrie, BSN, RN

P.S. This “expert” literally grew up at HSC. She started as a swimmer, was a teacher for many years, and is now a Pediatric Registered Nurse, working on her MSN to become a Nurse Practitioner.

Written by Tammy Schoen, Site Director of Houston Swim Club Sugar Land, with consultation by Shelby Guthrie, Pediatric Registered Nurse


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