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Two of the most common causes of ear problems in children come as a result of swimming and flying. Flying? Yes. Pressure changes in the airplane can cause middle ear barotrauma with accompanying earache. Swimmers ear is the other ear problem and you get it from another recreational activity: swimming.

Swimmer's Ear
Swimmer's ear is an infection in the delicate skin of the outer ear canal. It is quite painful. Your child's frequent splashing in the water wets the skin in the ear canal and provides an ideal environment for bacteria and fungus to grow. The irritation will usually at first cause itching, and then the skin of the ear canal will swell. There will also be some fluid drainage out of the ear. There is severe pain involved with this that gets worse when the ear lobe or outside parts of the ear are touched.

Your family doctor or pediatrician will probably prescribe eardrops that contain antibiotics or corticosteroids. The antibiotics will help fight the infection and the corticosteroids will reduce the swelling in the ear canal. These drops are usually given a few times a day for one to two weeks. The doctor may also recommend that the child be given pain relievers until the antibiotics start to work.

If the swelling in the ear is severe, the doctor may put a cotton wick into the ear canal to help draw the medication into the ear. For very severe infections, oral antibiotics may be prescribed and the doctor will send a sample of the fluid ear discharge to a laboratory to identify the exact germ that is responsible for the infection.

While taking the medication, your child will not be allowed to go swimming until the infection is cleared up. This will usually take ten to fourteen days. Your child's doctor will determine when your child can put her head in the water again. This may also carry over to showers and shampooing and your child could be prohibited from either or both for a while. A shower cap or a cotton ball smeared with petroleum jelly placed in the ear will keep the water out.

There are a couple of ways to prevent swimmer's ear. Acid alcohol drops are available over-the-counter and are an effective way to prevent swimmer's ear. These are used after swimming is finished for the day. Put a few drops into the ear canal while the child is lying down on her side. Gently massage the front of the ear canal and this will allow the drops to penetrate the ear. The child should be told to remain in that position for a minute or two and then roll over for a few drops in the other ear.
Generally, earplugs are not as good as the drops in preventing swimmer's ear. For children with a hole in the eardrum or ear tubes, earplugs are helpful. But earplugs are really meant for surface swimming only as they are not as effective underwater.

Middle Ear Barotrauma
An earache can develop when your child is traveling on an airplane. Middle Ear Barotrauma is caused through abnormal pressure changes in the air space behind the eardrum, called the middle ear. Although aircraft cabins are pressurized there is a decrease in the air pressure as the plane gains altitude. As the plane descends, as in when it's landing, there is an increase in air pressure. It is during the descent that children will most likely experience the pain of middle ear barotrauma. As the plane is descending, the pressure in the cabin increases, and the air pressure in the middle ear needs to be equalized. If the pressure isn't equalized, the higher cabin air pressure pushes on the eardrum and causes pain. In adults the eustachian tube, an opening that runs from the middle ear to the nasal passage, will open to equalize the pressure. This happens when we yawn or swallow, and we experience a pop in the ear. In children, the smaller eustachian tube may not work as effectively and pain will be experienced.

There are several things you can do to help your child better ventilate the middle ear and equalize the air pressure in the ears. Good hydration is essential. The air in an airplane is very dry and will cause the nasal mucus to thicken, which makes it difficult for the eustachian tube to open. A glass of water or juice for every hour of air travel will help prevent the drying effect. Even a small amount of nasal decongestant spray given before takeoff and before descent will help open the ear and nasal passages.

Avoid medications that contain antihistamines, such as those taken for colds and allergies. Antihistamines can make the problem worse by making secretions thicker and making your child drowsy. Your child should be awake for takeoff and descent. An older child may be able to benefit by chewing gum or sucking on a hard candy. Infants can be given a bottle, which works fine for them, but the child should be sitting up and not lying down while drinking.