Kids and ear plugs for swimming: What you need to know

2022-05-14 22:01:47 By : Ms. Rose Liao

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Contributed by Joy Victory, managing editor, Healthy Hearing Last updated June 11, 2021 2021-06-11T00:00:00-05:00

For many families, splashing in the backyard or community pool or heading to the nearest beach to cool off in the water is a major part of summer fun. For kids with certain ear problems, swim ear plugs are often recommended, but how do you know if your child needs them—and what types are the best?

Water can easily get trapped in the ears, so ear plugs are generally recommended for:

For other kids, some doctors recommend regular use of swim ear plugs only when diving or swimming frequently in untreated water, such as lakes, rivers and oceans. Plugs prevent bacteria from entering the ears. 

In treated water, such as a public swimming pool, ear plugs are not usually necessary for most kids, with one exception: Children with tubes in their ears who love the deep end. Deeper water may increase pressure in the ears and water may enter the ears.

(However, it's never a bad idea to wear earplugs, especially for kids and adults on swim teams who frequently get water trapped in their ears.)

To that end, children with ear tubes also should wear swim ear plugs whenever ears are submerged in soapy water in the bathtub. Soap acts as a surfactant, or lubricant, to reduce the surface tension and will allow the water to enter the tubes.

Many doctors recommend swim ear plugs for children that have ear tubes.

Keep in mind also that underwater swimming can cause painful pressure changes for children with ear infections. And in the case of a ruptured acute otitis media—also known as an ear infection with a ruptured eardrum—swimming should be avoided completely until the infection has cleared up.

There are two kinds of swim ear plugs available: Custom-fit plugs and one-size-fits-all swim plugs from the drugstore or pharmacy. They are both effective for keeping ears dry, but each type has advantages and disadvantages. Your hearing care professional can help you get the right kind for your child.

If you choose custom-fit swim ear plugs, they will need to be ordered through a hearing care professional. The advantage of custom swim plugs is that they are high quality, comfortable and last longer than drugstore plugs. They are reusable and washable for better hygiene. 

A disadvantage to custom-fit swim ear plugs is that they are more expensive. Ear plugs are easily lost, and custom-fit ear plugs are more difficult and more expensive to replace than the drugstore types. A swim ear band may be helpful for keeping plugs in place and preventing loss. 

The other option is one-size-fits-all ear plugs available from the drugstore or online. Usually made of silicone or putty, they are easy to find  and less expensive than custom swim ear plugs. That means when they are lost—which is a common occurrence with swim ear plugs—they are easier and less expensive to replace. They don’t require a custom fit, and often come in bright colors so they are easy to locate at the bottom of the pool or around the pool deck. They're also easy for kids to put in by themselves, and usually do not require an adult’s help. 

Over-the-counter ear plugs are usually not washable, and therefore not terribly hygienic. Due to wax and debris buildup, many people consider them disposable after one or two uses. With swim ear plugs made of putty, there is also a slim possibility that bits of putty could be left behind after the swim plugs are removed from the ears. One-size-fits-all plugs made of silicone, however, may solve this problem because they are washable.

Opinions vary widely on use and type of swim ear plugs. Every child's situation is different, so check with your pediatrician or hearing care professional to get specific advice, and read reviews of products you buy online. Keeping your child's ears safe, clean and dry this summer means fewer hearing hassles and office visits in the future. 

Joy Victory has extensive experience editing consumer health information. Her training in particular has focused on how to best communicate evidence-based medical guidelines and clinical trial results to the public. She strives to make health content accurate, accessible and engaging to the public. Read more about Joy.

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