Your frequent questions answered by the experts at Nationwide Children's Hospital

Q: My 5-year-old son loves to play in the water, so we've been visiting the pool a lot this summer. This is the first year that I've taken him to a pool and it got me wondering: What is the difference between an ear infection and swimmer's ear? Are they both infections? And how do you treat them?

A: Both are types of infections but are located in different parts of the ear and have different causative factors.

The most common ear infection is a middle-ear infection (also known as otitis media) and occurs when there is infection or inflammation in the middle ear. This happens when bacteria is introduced through the Eustachian tube, which connects the ear to the throat. Germs such as bacteria or viruses taken in through the nose and mouth could find their way to the middle ear, causing an ear infection.

With swimmer's ear, there is an infection in the ear canal. This is the opening in the outside of the ear that connects to the eardrum. When a person swims frequently, he or she is prone to having more moisture in the ear canal. This moisture can irritate and weaken the skin in the canal, allowing bacteria to enter into the skin and cause infection.

In addition, chlorinated pools change the pH of the ear canal, making it favorable for bacteria and fungi. Dry skin, vigorous ear cleaning or inserting foreign objects into the ear can also weaken the skin and increase the chance of infection.

For both infections, doctors will likely prescribe antibiotics. If you suspect your son has any sort of infection in the ear, take him to his primary care physician for proper diagnosis and treatment. While some infections clear up on their own, it's important to prevent them from worsening in severity.

-Dr. Charles Elmaraghy is Interim Chief of the Department of Otolaryngology at Nationwide Children's Hospital and an Assistant Professor of Clinical Otolaryngology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.