Ear pains can be outside the eardrum, or inside.  The first is common with swimmers in summer, and the second with airplane travelers any time of year.  Let’s take a look at some strategies to avoid trouble.

ear pain

For swimmers, when water enters the ear canals, bacteria can come along, from ocean, lake, or pool.  Once entrenched as an infection along the wall of the ear canal, it can become very painful.  A simple tugging of the outer ear can produce great pain.  A visit to your doctor can quickly identify and treat the problem,  usually with antibiotic drops.  However, a good way to prevent these is to use a freezer  zip-lock bag, with a handful of cotton balls.  Add a few ounces of rubbing alcohol to the bag, zip it shut, and roll it up with your beach towel.  As soon as you come out of the water, open the bag, and squeeze the contents of one of the cotton balls into your ear, while tipping the head to the side.  Hold it for a few moments,  then use a fresh cotton ball to do the same in the other ear.  Re-zip the bag and you are ready for the next time.  The alcohol doesn’t need to contact the bacteria for long, as we can see when we use the same swab technique to sterilize the skin before an injection.  Great trick for the kids, and handy for  adults as well.

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Fluid inside the drum is produced all day, every day.  The problem is when the drain is clogged.  The drain, or Eustachian tube runs from the middle ear chamber behind the eardrum to the nasal passage on that side.  

ear anatomy

The mucous membrane that lines the drain also lines the nasal passages, including the sinuses.  So any common cold or allergy that makes the nose stuffy can restrict the drain, causing the middle ear to back up with watery fluid.  One way to respond to this is to take non-prescription (oral) medications  such as antihistamines with “cold and sinus “ properties.  Take one or two a day, as directed.  If you are in an airplane and have stuffy ears, carry a short acting tablet to take about 90 minutes before descent, not before landing.   Then use a nasal spray, such as plain saline, or one with a decongestant added.  Point the spray to the back of your head, not to the top, as the nasal passage runs over the roof of your mouth, (not up into your brain).  Tip your head to the same side as the nostril you are treating, and trickle the spray so that it will run over the opening of the Eustachian tube, helping to open the drain.  Try chewing gum, or yawning to see if you can further  make the drain open.  If not, try the Valsalva maneuver:   plug both nostrils, and blow out against a closed glottis, to make your cheeks bulge, and you may be able to force the drainage tubes open. 

The above can be done without prescription meds, but if you have any ear pains, please consult your doctor.  If you are flying, you may need prescriptions for antibiotics or for nasal steroid spray to enhance the above.

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