Some of us might already be feeling the symptoms, while others are completely unaware that the condition even exists—but the reality is that any of us who play in the ocean regularly are at risk of surfer’s ear.
Interestingly, surfer’s ear is less a consequence of water as it is air. When we are surfing, we often do so in cold and windy conditions (hopefully offshore wind!).
The movement of that cold air past our ears leads the human body to try to protect the ear canal through exostosis, or the growth of abnormal bone. The bones in the ear slowly react to the cold wind by growing beyond their natural limits, eventually partially and in some cases even completely blocking the ear canal.
As the canal becomes more and more blocked, water tends to become more easily trapped in the ear, which can lead to infections.
Most frequent surfers will exhibit the development of at least some exostoses (bone growths)—even those who surf exclusively in the tropics. The movement of wind past the ear and the evaporative effects of water in the ears may not be as problematic in warm areas, but it still has an effect.
Unfortunately, the condition is progressive, meaning that it tends to get worse as time goes
Unfortunately, the condition is progressive, meaning that it tends to get worse as time goes on if exposure to the adverse conditions persists (that is, if you don’t stop surfing).
Eventually the exotoses will grow to the point where they become medically problematic, at which time the only real solution is to get your ear’s drilled—not an attractive prospect. Some doctors instead opt to use small chisels, which doesn't really sound any better.
After surgery, patients are instructed to stay out of the water until the ear has fully healed—both to avoid infection, and to prevent rupture of the inflamed eardrum from being put under pressure. And even once the ears have healed completely, it is still possible for exostosis to occur again if the ears continue to be exposed to the elements.
The obvious and most convenient solution to surfer’s ear is to avoid getting it in the first place—and there are two main ways to do so. The first is to stop surfing—which obviously isn’t going to happen. So most of us will have to go with the second option: protecting our ears from the wind while surfing.
This is especially true if we live in cold, windy areas where the symptoms of surfer’s ear tend to be most common. Obviously wearing a hood will help to protect the ears from cold wind, but even a layer of neoprene doesn’t guarantee that you won’t end up going under the drill.
The best plan of action is to find a good pair of earplugs. There are many companies today that make earplugs specifically for surfers, with features like neck leashes and one-way air vents that allow the ears to hear and equalize.
Surfer’s ear can be a real pain—I watched a friend who grew up in San Francisco get drilled twice, rupture his ear drum after returning to the water too soon, and end up growing a tumor on his ear drum due to the irritation from the surgeries—but the good news is that it’s preventable. Next time you are out picking up a new board or a bar of wax, grab a set of plugs as well. Your ears will thank you.
Looking for some ear plugs? Go HERE.
Cover shot: Damian Davila