Planes, Trains and Ear Infections
July 21, 2008
To me, getting an earache is almost like losing your
luggage at the airport. For one thing, both events most
likely occur after a bad plane flight. For another, they
both happen at the most inopportune moments– like when
you’ve packed your $5,000 heirloom wedding dress, or when
you’re vacationing out in a remote island and the nearest
doctor is about a 5 hour plane ride away. Either way, you
want to prevent and not fall victim to these problems if at
Although I can’t offer much in the way of lost luggage
retrieval, having suffered through this twice in my own
travels, I can give you prevention methods to many of your
worst ear problems. Most of them are simple enough to
manage on your own at home or abroad.
KNOW THE PROBLEM, FIND THE SOLUTION
Before I talk about prevention, let’s start off with a
brief description of some of the most common ear problems I
see this at time of the year. Knowing what causes certain
ear problems will aid you in understanding what you can do
to avoid these problems altogether.
Ear Problem #1: Swimmer’s Ear
The organisms that cause ear infections like swimmers ear
and others like it love dark, warm, moist places, and your
ears, unfortunately, are the perfect vacation spot for
these types of visitors. In the case of swimmers ear,
humidity and heat can aggravate swelling in the layer of
skin inside your ears. Add to that any additional water
from swimming and in some cases the irritation of pool
chemicals or even polluted water from natural swimming and
diving areas, and the outer ear canal can get even softer
and more prone to infection.
However, swimmer’s ear isn’t only for swimmers. Because
swimmer’s ear is caused by water trapped in the outer
structures of the ear, any water based activity can lead
you in that direction. Some people even get swimmer’s ear
from baths or showers.
Common symptoms of swimmer’s ear can include:
• mild to moderate pain
• ear fullness
• decreased hearing
• swollen lymph nodes
• ear drainage
Solution for Swimmer’s Ear: Blow Drying
With some severe infections, antibiotic drops may be
necessary to treat swimmer’s ear. However, mildly acidic
solutions such as white vinegar (diluted with an equal part
of water) can be highly effective for early infections. Of
course, the best treatment for swimmer’s ear is to keep
your ears free of moisture during and after water
activities. But using Q-tips even to just dry the outer ear
canal is NOT recommended. They have a tendency to pack the
ear wax deeper into the ear canal, or worse, remove the
protective layer of earwax in the ear canal. This can not
only irritate the thin skin around the ear canal, but make
the ear a more habitable place for bacteria to congregate.
As such, the safest way to dry your ears is, believe it or
not, with a hair dryer.
If you do NOT have a perforated eardrum, rubbing alcohol or
a 50:50 mixture of alcohol and white vinegar used as ear
drops will evaporate excess water and keep your ears dry.
Ear Problem #2: Otitis Media
Otitis Media, or middle ear infections are common in
children under the age of seven, and some children seem to
have chronic ear infections throughout their early years.
Symptoms can include fever, pain, crying, nausea, vomiting,
diarrhea, and crankiness. Most middle ear infections are
caused by blockage of the Eustachian tube openings in the
back of the nose by a virus or allergies. Although few are
caused by bacteria, the rate of antibiotic use for ear
infections have become commonplace.
It is possible to have the symptoms without having an
actual infection. This occurs when the tissues in the
middle ear become inflamed and in turn causes a build up of
pressure or fluid—with pain and hearing loss as the result.
SOLUTION FOR OTITIS MEDIA: LET IT BE
Again antibiotics are often used for treatment, but
oftentimes an approach of “watchful waiting” is better.
This entails a few days of, as you most likely guessed,
waiting and watching to see if symptoms will begin to
subside on their own. Several studies, along with my many
years of observation have found this non-antibiotic
approach has merit and can help reduce the occurrence of
antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria from developing in
Sometimes tympanostomy tubes, or the surgical insertion of
tiny tubes into the ear, may be used for children with
chronic otitis media that lasts months or more.
Ear Problem #3: Allergies & TMJ
Allergies can affect your ears by blocking the tube that
connects the nose with the middle ear. Ear stuffiness,
echoing, fullness and a sense of pressure are common
Some other conditions that can cause ear pain are dental
pain, TMJ and other *
0.throat conditions. Sometimes when you have an infection
or other medical problem with these areas of your head and
neck, the pain can show up as ear pain. Often there are
other symptoms in these specific areas too. For example
dental and jaw pain can spread both upwards and downwards
causing headaches, jaw stiffness and throbbing, face and
neck pain, and pressure, as well as inner and outer ear
pain and a sensation of fullness.
Solutions For Allergies and TMJ: Open Up
As you’ve most likely guessed, the best way to prevent ear
problems generated by allergies or dental pain is to treat
the source of the pain itself.
For instance, if you suffer from seasonal allergies, the
best way for you to keep them from affecting your ears is
by using generous amounts of nasal saline or over the
counter decongestants like Claritin-D®, Sudafed® or Afrin®
(use this only for 2 or 3 days). For chronic sufferers,
using prescription nasal sprays like Nasonex®, or Flonase®
prior to an allergy attack can also help keep your
Eustachian tubes open and therefore less prone to problems.
For ear pain that’s generated by TMJ or other dental
problems can be alleviated at home with warm compresses,
eating a soft diet and taking an anti-inflammatory
medication like ibuprofen. Chronic TMJ sufferers may need
to see a dentist about being fitted with a TMJ night guard.
The Ultimate Prevention Solution
Of course, keeping your ears dry while swimming and washing
your hands frequently to reduce your exposure to upper
respiratory infections are all typical ways of preventing
ear infections. However, one thing that you might add to
this regimen if you haven’t already done so, is to change
your dietary and lifestyle habits. Although it’s not
stressed nearly enough, quitting smoking (Copy the
following link to your browser
http://www.audioacrobat.com/play/W3pxsBVQ to listen to an
in depth interview with a smoking cessation specialist and
author of Stop Smoking for the Last Time by George Wissing
on how you can quit struggle free), and avoiding late night
meals and getting quality restful sleep can all help to
reduce your chances of suffering from ear pain.
Besides the fact that all of these habits are unhealthy for
you anyway, they can also aggravate acid reflux—the worst
aggravator for many common ear, nose and throat problems.
When you eat late and go to sleep right away, gastric
juices can get sucked up into your throat, and you can end
up with LPRD or laryngo-pharyngeal reflux disease. Research
indicates that gastro-esophageal reflux disease as well as
its counterpart, LPRD can cause swelling of the eustachian
tubes (For more information on how you can prevent LPRD click here.
As you can see, many common ear problems can be avoided
simply and easily. As such, a good prevention plan should
always accompany you on your travels. As for lost luggage,
the best advice I have is to pack lite and to take the
train. Come Aboard!