Summers can bring sweltering heat that force people of all ages, shapes and sizes scrambling for the pool or nearest water source, but watch out for swimmer's ear according to a new report published this week. If you are feeling itchy, flaky, swollen or painful ears, you may be a victim of an infection that is not only painful, but expensive.
According to the CDC, swimmer's ear results in 2.4 million doctor visits annually in the United States, each visit costing an average of $200, that's almost $500 million in U.S. health-care costs each year, according to a new government report. In 2007 for example, one out of 123 Americans sought medical treatment for swimmer's ear.
Michael Beach, the CDC's associate director for healthy water stated:
"Most people think of swimmer's ear as a mild condition that quickly goes away, but this common infection is responsible for millions of illnesses and substantial medical costs each year. Many of these cases are preventable."
Children between 5 and 14 years old had the highest rates of doctor's visits between 2003 and 2007, the researchers found, but adults 21 and older accounted for more than half of the visits. Forty-four percent of reported cases occurred in June, July or August, and the South was the region with the highest rates.
Swimmer's ear, also called otitis externa, occurs when bacteria grow in the ear canal, which is a passageway to the eardrum. In that canal, you'll find delicate skin that's protected by a thin coating of earwax. Most of the time, water can run in and out of the ear canal without causing a problem. For instance, you don't usually get swimmer's ear from taking baths or showers.
Bacteria get a chance to grow when water stays in the ear canal and it washes away the protective coating of earwax. A lot of swimming can wash away that wax protection and lead to these wet conditions in the ear canal. Bacteria grow and the ear canal gets red and swollen. Sometimes kids can get an infection in the ear canal even if they haven't been swimming. A scratch or other irritation to the ear canal can also lead to swimmer's ear.
Researchers used data from two national databases to determine the number of outpatient visits for swimmer's ear between 2003 and 2007. To estimate the costs of those visits, they looked at an insurance database for millions of people who have employer-provided health insurance. The cost estimate included what the insurers paid, the patients' out-of-pocket costs, and the price of prescription treatments.
"By taking simple steps before and after swimming or coming in contact with water, people can greatly reduce their risk of this painful infection."
Treatment for the early stages of swimmer's ear include careful cleaning of the ear canal and use of eardrops that inhibit bacterial or fungal growth and reduce inflammation. Mildly acidic solutions containing boric or acetic acid are effective for early infections.
Sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery
Written by Sy Kraft