Kids and swim ear plugs: What you need to know

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. Before you get your pool passes for the season, find out about how to protect your children’s ears when they start enjoying time in the water. Swim ear plugs are often the best solution, but how do you know if your child needs them and what types are the best?

The case for swim ear plugs

For children with recurrent ear infections such as swimmer’s ear (otitis externa), infections of the middle ear (otitis media) or ear tubes, the best bet is often swim ear plugs. These custom plugs keep ears dry preventing water containing harmful bacteria to get trapped inside the ear.

swimmers ear and hearing loss
Swimmer's ear can be extremely painful for
children. Ear plugs can be an excellent remedy
to avoid this condition. 

Many doctors recommend swim ear plugs for children that have ear tubes. Ear tubes are small cylinders that have been placed through the eardrum in the case of recurring middle ear infections in order to allow fluid to drain. Other doctors recommend regular use of swim ear plugs only when diving or swimming in untreated water, such as lakes, rivers and oceans.

The argument for limited use of plugs for children with ear tubes is predicated on the fact that surface tension of the water will prevent any water from entering the ear tubes, so unless a child is swimming 3 feet or more under water, they should be safe. 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.

Even without ear tubes, swimming can pose risks for children with current ear infections or previous surgery. Although swimming doesn't cause middle ear infections, swim ear plugs should be worn so any water pollutants don’t make an existing infection worse. 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.

Types of swim ear plugs

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.

Custom swim ear plugs

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 re-usable and washable for greater 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. 

One-size-fits-all plugs

The other option is one-size-fits-all ear plugs available from the drugstore. Usually made of silicone or putty, they are easy to obtain 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 quickly 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. One size fits all ear plugs are also easy for kids to put in by themselves, and usually do not require an adult’s help.

Drugstore 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.

Getting advice

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. Keeping your child's ears safe, clean and dry this summer means fewer hearing hassles and office visits in the future.