Wrinkled fingers and relief from the heat aren’t the only effects of spending lots of time in water. For about 10 percent of people — mostly kids between age 5 and the early teen years — lengthy dips can lead to swimmer’s ear.

Also known as otitis externa, swimmer’s ear is an infection of the ear canal, which runs from the ear drum to the outside of the ear. (The other common type of ear infection, otitis media, is an infection of the middle ear.) Swimmer’s ear is caused when germs get trapped under the skin in the ear canal and multiply, explains Richard Rosenfeld, MD, MPH, professor and chair of otolaryngology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center.

In many cases, bacteria get in through a scratch in the ear canal — a good reason to never stick anything small or sharp, such as a cotton swab or bobby pin into the ear. Skin conditions that affect the ear canal, such as eczema, can increase the risk of swimmer’s ear. People with diabetes or immune system disorders, who are more prone to infections in general, also may be susceptible to swimmer’s ear.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), germs in swimming pools, lakes and oceans can cause otitis externa. Bacteria in less-than-clean hot tubs or polluted water also can contribute to swimmer’s ear. Occasionally a fungus is to blame for the condition.

Don’t let a pesky earache put a damper on your summer fun. Here’s how to treat — and prevent — swimmer’s ear.

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Swimmer's ear symptoms

“The most typical symptoms of swimmer’s ear are pain or a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear, discomfort when the outside of the ear is pressed, trouble hearing and possibly ear drainage,” says Amy Sniderman, MD, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Cleveland Clinic Children’s.

“The key difference between an outer ear infection and one in the middle ear is that it hurts to wiggle the ear of a child who has swimmer’s ear,” adds Mika Hiramatsu, MD, a pediatrician in Hayward, California and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Other signs to watch for: redness, swelling of the skin around the ear, swollen lymph nodes near the ear or in the upper neck and itching in the ear canal.

If you or your child have any of these symptoms, see a doctor. It’s especially important not to delay if pain is severe or there’s a fever. Left untreated, the possible complications of swimmer’s ear include hearing loss (though it usually returns when the infection has cleared) or chronic infections of the outer ear. Bone or cartilage damage is also a possibility, though this is more common in people with diabetes or older adults.

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How to treat swimmer's ear 

Typically swimmer’s ear is treated with ear drops — antibiotic drops if the infection is bacterial, antifungal drops if it’s caused by a fungus. “Some ear drops may have a steroid in them to reduce swelling and inflammation,” says Sniderman.

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Before using ear drops, the ear canal should be carefully cleaned. A pediatrician or ear, nose and throat doctor can clear away bits of earwax, skin and other debris before the initial dose.

Once swimmer’s ear is diagnosed, it’s important to stay on dry land. “Preventing more water from getting into the ear is key to treatment,” says Eric Wilkinson, MD, a neurotologist with House Clinic, a chain of ear clinics in southern California.

Keeping swimmer's ear away

Making the pool off-limits in the summertime is hardly an option, but there are some precautions you can take to dampen the risk of swimmer’s ear. For instance, a swim cap or earplugs can block water from entering the ears, according to the CDC.

Toweling off the ears is important too, as is tilting the head to each side so water drains from the ears. You can also use a blow dryer to in the ear canal. Just make sure to use the coolest, slowest setting and hold the dryer several inches away from the ear.

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If your child is prone to swimmer’s ear, ask the doctor about trying a few drops of a home solution of equal parts white vinegar and rubbing alcohol in the at-risk ear after coming out of the water. “The vinegar contains acetic acid, which kills bacteria and fungi, and the alcohol is an antiseptic and helps dry the ear,” explains Rosenfeld. But don’t use this mixture if your child has a hole in the ear drum or an ear tube in place, since it’ll sting badly if the solution gets into the middle ear.

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Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York City-based writer and editor who specializes in parenting, health and child development. She’s also the mom of two teen girls.