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Kids and swim ear plugs: What you need to know

Contributed by | Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

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With summer upon us, many parents have concerns about keeping their children’s ears healthy as time in the pool increases. For children with recurrent ear infections such as swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) infections of the middle ear (otitis media) or ear tubes, the best bet is often swim ear plugs. But with so many kinds on the market, which ones are the best for your child, and are they really necessary?

To begin with, swim ear plugs prevent infections such as swimmer’s ear by keeping ears dry. Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, is a common infection of the skin of the ear canal. When water trapped in the ear contains bacteria, it can cause a skin infection which leads to painful inflammation and swelling.

swimmers ear and hearing loss
Swimmer's ear can be extremely painful for
children. Ear plugs can be an excellent remedy
to avoid this condition. 

Some doctors also recommend swim ear plugs for children that have ear tubes. Ear tubes are small cylinders that have been placed through the eardrum in the case of recurring middle ear infections in order to allow fluid to drain. But other doctors differ in their thinking, and recommend regular use of swim ear plugs only when diving or swimming in untreated water, such as lakes, rivers and oceans.

The argument for limited use in the case of ear tubes is predicated on the fact that the surface tension of the water will prevent any water from entering the ear tubes, so unless a child is swimming 3 feet or more under water there shouldn’t be a problem. To that end, children with ear tubes also should wear swim ear plugs whenever ears are submerged in soapy water in the bathtub, as the soap acts as a surfactant, or lubricant, to reduce the surface tension and allow the water to enter the tubes.

Even without ear tubes, swimming can pose risks for children with current ear infections or previous surgery. Although swimming doesn’t cause middle ear infections, swim ear plugs should be worn so any water pollutants don’t make an existing infection worse. Keep in mind also that underwater swimming can cause painful pressure changes for children with ear infections. And in the case of a ruptured acute otitis media, also known as an ear infection with a ruptured eardrum, swimming should be avoided completely until the infection has cleared up.

There are two kinds of swim ear plugs available; custom fit plugs, and one size fits all swim plugs from the drugstore or pharmacy. They are both effective for keeping ears dry, but each type has certain advantages and disadvantages. Your hearing care professional can help you with recommendations as to which kind is right for your child.

If you choose to go the route of custom fit swim ear plugs, they will need to be ordered through a hearing care professional. The advantage of custom swim plugs is that they tend to be higher quality, and therefore last longer. Hygiene is also a factor; they are re-usable and washable. Your hearing healthcare professional will assist you to find the brand that best fits your child’s needs.

One disadvantage to custom fit swim ear plugs is that they are expensive. Ear plugs are easily lost, and custom fit ear plugs are more difficult and more expensive to replace than the one size fits all kind readily found at the drugstore. A swim ear band, basically a tight band that helps keep ear plugs in place, may be helpful if you choose to go the custom fit route. Bear in mind also that they are more difficult to insert, and most children will need the help of an adult.

The other option is one size fits all ear plugs available from the drugstore, although these have their advantages and disadvantages as well. Usually made of silicone or putty, they are easy to obtain and less expensive than custom swim ear plugs. That means when they are lost, which is a common occurrence with swim ear plugs, they are quicker, easier and less expensive to replace. They don’t require a custom fit, and often come in bright colors so they are easy to locate at the bottom of the pool or around the pool deck. One size fits all ear plugs are also easy for kids to put in by themselves, and usually do not require an adult’s help.

The biggest problem with one size fits all ear plugs is that they are not washable, and therefore not terribly hygienic. Due to wax and debris buildup, many people consider them disposable after one or two uses. With swim ear plugs made of putty, there is also a slim possibility that bits of putty could be left behind after the swim plugs are removed from the ears.

There is another kind of one size fits all ear plugs that seems to solve the hygiene issue; the conical shaped swim plugs made of silicone. They are not only inexpensive, but re-useable and washable as well. The accordion-like nature of the swim plugs allows for a better fit than regular swim plugs. They block out both noise and water, and are easily removable. The biggest problem is that they are unattractive, visibly sticking out of the ears, and tend to lose suction and fall out easily.

Bottom line? Opinions vary widely as to recommendations on use and type of swim ear plugs. Checking with your child’s pediatrician or hearing care professional to see what they have to say will help you make the best decision for your child and keep his ears as healthy as possible all summer long.

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