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The question: I have pain in my ear. Could this be the start of an infection?

The answer: Swimmer's ear, also known as otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear canal. Your ear canals have natural defences that prevent infection and keep your ears clean. While wax can seem irritating, it's actually protective and prevents the growth of bacteria.

If the ear canal gets irritated with the use of a cotton swab, an allergic reaction to shampoos or hairspray, or excess moisture due to swimming or perspiration – it can lead to an overgrowth of bacteria. The common symptoms of infection include itching, redness or pain of the canal, which can feel worse by pulling on the outer ear (pinna). There can also be some drainage from the ear and in some cases, hearing loss can occur due to buildup of pus, wax and debris.

Swimmer's ear is often treated with topical antibiotic ear drops that work well when treated early. The acidic solution helps to rebalance the normal bacterial make-up of the ear canal. Your doctor may also prescribe steroid drops to decrease inflammation and swelling. The best way to use these drops is to lie on your side with the infected ear up and instill them so they reach the full length of the ear canal. For pain management, anti-inflammatories such as Advil, Motrin or pain relievers such acetaminophen can be helpful.

If you have been exposed to moisture from swimming or bathing, wipe your outer ear with a soft towel and dry your ears with a blow-dryer at a low setting, holding it about a foot away from the ear. If you swim outdoors, try to avoid locations with known high bacterial counts. Avoid using any foreign objects in the ears such as cotton swabs (no matter how good they feel!) as they can end up pushing wax in further and can irritate the protective lining of the ear canal.

The question: I'm prone to heat rashes, what can I do to prevent this uncomfortable condition?

The answer: When our pores become blocked due to perspiration or debris, the normal process of sweat evaporating does not occur. As a result, the sweat can get trapped under the skin and lead to irritation. Sometimes the symptoms can be a mild red rash, but for some it can go into the deeper layers of the skin, leading to "prickly heat" that can be very uncomfortable.

Anything that makes you sweat can put you at higher risk of developing heat rash. This can include hot temperatures and humidity, physical activity, clothing that traps heat, or skin products that can block sweat ducts.

In general, medical attention is not required. The best way to help the process is to cool the skin and decrease trapping of sweat. Apply cool cloths to your skin, wear lightweight breathable clothing and find an air-conditioned or cool environment. To soothe the skin, you can try using topical therapy such as calamine lotion or non-occlusive lanolin creams and in more severe cases, your doctor may prescribe topical steroids to help decrease inflammation. If the rash lasts longer than a few days or you develop signs of infection such as pain, swelling or redness, seek medical care.

The question: I didn't apply enough sunscreen. How can I ease the pain now that I have a terrible sunburn?

The answer: After a winter's hibernation, it's tempting to sit outside in the sun and soak up the rays. Unfortunately though, if you're out in the sun for a long time or you don't have enough sunscreen protection, you can end up with a painful sunburn. The sun's rays are composed of UV radiation, which in excess (either through natural sunlight or through tanning beds) can lead to over-exposure and burns.

There are some things you can do at home to help ease the pain of sunburns. Soothe the skin by using cold cloths that can help to reduce swelling and decrease heat in area. Vinegar has anti-inflammatory properties so soak a paper towel and apply to the sunburned area or run a bath with two cups of vinegar in a tub full of water.

You can also apply baking soda or aloe to the skin. Oral or topical anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen (Advil/Motrin) or diclofenac (Voltaren) cream can also help. If you develop blisters from the sunburn, gently cover them up but do not break them as this can slow the healing process and increase the risk of infection. Remember to stay hydrated as you can lose a lot of fluid when you have a sun burn.

To prevent sunburns, be sure to apply sunscreen liberally (SPF of at least 30) and reapply frequently if you're active or swimming. Cover up with light clothing and limit your time outdoors during heavy sunlight hours (10 a.m to 4 p.m.).

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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