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Swimmers ear (otitis externa) is an easy one to diagnose, and to treat if you catch it early. That's the key. Usually, the child complains of itching in the ear the day before the horrible pain. Once the ear actually hurts, the diagnosis is made by touching or tugging on the external ear, which causes intense pain.
If you are still at the itching stage, immediately stop swimming for a day or two. Make a solution of vinegar and rubbing alcohol, mixed half and half in a squeeze bottle (a hair tint bottle for touching up roots works great). (You can make this solution for about 3 cents per ounce. Commercial swimmers ear drops at the drugstore cost $2.19 an ounce when I checked. Figure it out.) Flush and drain the ear with a good squirt every three to four hours until the itching goes away in a day or two. Then back in the pool.
If you waited to the pain stage, you may need prescription antibiotic and antiinflammatory drops, especially if the ear canal is swollen. If the child can tolerate the vinegar and alcohol solution in the ear without pain, try flushing the ear with the solution four or five times a day for a couple of days. I once read a study that found that vinegar/alcohol was faster (and a lot cheaper) than prescription drops for curing swimmers ear. It really seems to work for mild cases.
Of course, all bets are off if your child has tubes in the ears, a known perforated eardrum, or a lot of drainage from the ear. In that case, do NOT put anything at all in the ear. See your doctor.
Now to prevent swimmers ear, simply remember to flush out your child's ears with the vinegar/alcohol mixture after every swim. If you do that consistently, no more swimmers ear ever.