If you're reading this while taking a break from packing, the last thing on your mind is probably your ears. But your ears are more likely to give you a painful reminder of their presence on summer holidays than at any other time. Forget sun and sand - it's sea, skies and swimming that make your ears vulnerable at this time of year.
Aeroplane ear can get your holiday off to the worst possible start. Some people are more prone than others to acute ear pain when their plane comes down to land. If you never give your ears a moment's thought as a rule, you may not even have heard of your Eustachian tubes - but these tiny channels between your middle ear and the outside world, via the back of the throat, keep pressure the same on both sides of your eardrum. If they're blocked, your ears can't adapt to the changes in pressure as the plane descends. The result? Your eardrum gets pushed inwards by the pressure, causing the same symptoms as a middle ear infection.
Anything from a cold to hay fever can cause mucus to build up, blocking the Eustachian tube. To avoid cancelling your trip or suffering, try sucking sweets or breathing out while holding your nose as the plane descends. Both of these can help get air into the middle ear. Antihistamine tablets, decongestant nose spray or air pressure regulating earplugs can help.
Then there's the holiday itself, and that tempting swimming pool or azure sea. But hot, humid weather, sweaty conditions and swimming all make you more prone to the itchy, sometimes painful condition of otitis externa, or outer ear infection. Your ears can also feel blocked, you can get swollen lymph glands in your neck and you may get a nasty-smelling discharge from one or both ears.
While an old fashioned regulation swimming cap may not be the sexiest look on the beach, it could save you from days of misery. A tight-fitting cap or silicone earplugs keep water out of your ears, and this is thought to be the main cause of otitis externa. If you do get water in your ears, never give in to the temptation to 'dry them out' with cotton buds or the pointy end of your towel. At best, this will push water further in; at worst, you can scratch the delicate lining of the eardrum, making you more prone to infection.
If you are going abroad, make sure you have health cover. The EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) is valid in all European Economic Area countries. It entitles you to healthcare at reduced, sometimes free, rates, as if you were a citizen of the country you're in. But it's not an alternative for travel insurance, so do check what's covered and what isn't - some risks just aren't worth taking!
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.