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When an elephant gets an earache - (6/23/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

The doors of the pharmacy blew open, and Ethel the Elephant lumbered in. "My Angela was up all night with an earache," she trumpeted. “She and her pals were frolicking in the lake as they do every day in the summer. But her friends Gerry the Giraffe and Barney the Beaver playfully ganged up on her and pushed Angela's head under the water. Luckily, she could breathe through her trunk, but she got a lot of water in her ears. What should I do?” Ethel lamented. 

Oh, the impact summer has on the ears, the pharmacist thought. Angela likely has a case of swimmer’s ear, which means an infection is brewing inside the ear canal. This happens when one spends a lot of time in the lakes, rivers, pools, or oceans that beckon us on hot summer days. The dilemma is that water and moisture, in general, can get trapped in the ear canal, setting the stage for bacterial or fungal colonies to take hold. Angela truly is the little elephant with the big earache.

In swimmer's ear, the problem is behind the eardrum. Thus, relief is tricky. While soaking up any residual water in the outer ear with a Q-Tip® seems reasonable, avoid doing this, say otolaryngologists (ENT doctors). Using a cotton swab can scrape the ear cainal, setting out a welcome mat for infectious critters. One can even puncture the eardrum, resulting in a slew of complications, including hearing loss.

Instead, other methods are safer. For example, dry the ears entirely with a soft towel after swimming or bathing. A hairdryer works also. Put the setting on "low" and position the blow dryer at least 12 inches from the ear. Avoiding phlegm-producing foods can reduce the amount of pus or other discharges that can accompany swimmer’s ear. Some of the phlegm-producing foods are lentils, milk, yogurt, cheese, bananas, corn, cabbage, and potatoes. Instead, include foods that help relieve phlegm, such as garlic, celery, onions, parsley, leafy greens, berries, broccoli, and bell peppers. “Can Angela eat some of her favorites, such as maple and willow leaves?” Ethel asked the pharmacist. “Yes, and don’t forget omega-3 fatty acid-rich foods like fatty fish,” suggested the pharmacist. “Oh, she loves to snack on carp in the lake!” exclaimed Ethel.   

Other home remedies include garlic, hydrogen peroxide, warm compresses, and white vinegar. However, do not spend too much time fooling around with homespun cures when an infection is possible. See the doctor who will determine if an infection is causing the pain. If so, an antibiotic, antifungal, or special drainage may be required. 

Yes, ear infections are more common in kids, since their Eustachian tubes – the channels that connect the middle ear to the throat and nose – are smaller than adults’ tubes. Thus, little ears, like Angela's, are more susceptible to excessive mucus formation that can clog the tubes and make them swell (Pain!). 

Ethel decided, based on the pharmacist's recommendations, to examine Angela's ears carefully. She would use warm compresses and thoroughly dry her ears one more night. Otherwise, Ethel would trot Angela over to Dr. Owl, her primary physician. "He is very wise,” she said. “I guess I gave you quite an earful of information to remember," the pharmacist said to Ethel the Elephant. "Don't worry," roared Ethel, joyously waving her trunk, “An elephant never forgets!”

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.  

Illustrations by Elaine Garvin


 


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