July 20, 2012

To Ear Plug or Not to Ear Plug

Seems like a fairly simple question... but oh what controversy it stirs up when regarding a patient with ear tubes who wants to go swimming.

There are two schools of thought...

1) Based on evidence and research, no need to wear ear plugs... ever.

The argument... Well, here's the research:

 2) Based on personal experience, ear plugs should be worn.

The argument:

When there's a tube present through the eardrum, any water that gets into the ear canal can potentially go through the tube and into the middle ear space and cause an infection (otitis media). The middle ear space should remain sterile, but if the water is contaminated with germs, this sterile space becomes violated.

Remember, germs found in swimming pools, lakes, rivers, and oceans can be quite funky to say the least. Think of all the birds and animals that go potty in such bodies of water (let alone humans). Read more about poop in swimming pools.

Furthermore, there is a type of ear infection called Swimmer's Ear (otitis externa) which is an infection of the skin lining the ear canal. If swimming can cause Swimmer's Ear, than by golly, it certainly can cause middle ear infections as well.

Also, if swimming can cause life-threatening brain eating amoebic infections (amoeba travels into the nose and up into the brain), than by golly, such water getting into the ear can certainly cause ear infections.

Though research does not necessarily bear this argument out, many ENTs have noted from personal experience that it is not uncommon that a patient with ear tubes presents with a draining ear infection within a few days of swimming.

Given water precautions take minimal effort and costs little ($10 ear plugs or swim cap or ear bands... see below), it seems worth it to play it on safe side.


What do I typically recommend? Ear plugs when swimming, but not necessary when taking a bath (given tap water is theoretically clean).

Many will disagree depending on who you ask, but that's my personal opinion.

Fauquier blog
Fauquier ENT

Dr. Christopher Chang is a private practice otolaryngology, head & neck surgeon specializing in the treatment of problems related to the ear, nose, and throat. Located in Warrenton, VA about 45 minutes west of Washington DC, he also provides inhalant allergy testing/treatment, hearing tests, and dispenses hearing aids.


Anonymous said...

A very informative and easy to understand site with good illustrations.I was particularly investigating ear pressure (causes and treatment) as although I have been deaf for many years and had several operations on one ear, it is only during the past 3/4 years the effects have been experienced.By chance,I recently had a pressure test during an audiology consultation which caused pain but nothing was explained to me.Resorting to the internet I was pleasd to find your website. There were other interesting links too. Thank you. From UK reader.

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