Surfer’s Ear: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Do you know about Surfer’s Ear? We put our bodies through it as surfers. We cram in double sessions on the weekend, jump in the water before and after work, and on surf trips; we spend 8 hours per day paddling, duck diving, getting tubed, or, if you’re like me, taking sets on the head and spending most of the session underwater.  

This kind of activity fills our sinuses with water, and you only need to have been in the middle of dinner, even on a date and have a cup full of water poor out of your nose onto the dinner table. A little embarrassing, but all part and parcel of being a surfer! But if you’re a cold water surfer, you face another, more serious problem from surfing too much. Surfer’s ear. 

If you’ve ever come out of the surf unable to hear, had water stuck in your ear for days, or had an ear infection, you’ll know first-hand how frustrating surfers ear can be. In this article, we dive into everything you need to know about the incredibly annoying surfer ear. From what it is, why it happens, and what you can do to prevent it. 

What is Surfer’s Ear? 

Surfer’s ear is a bone growth inside the ear from repeat exposure to cold water and wind. If you live in a cold water surf destination such as Canada, Northern Califonia, Europe, or even South Australia, you’re exposed to the risk of a surfer’s ear.  

It’s the body’s way of protecting the eardrum from constant cold exposure that can permanently damage your ear. So the bone grows over the canal to protect the more important parts of your ear.  Although you know it as the annoying water wedged in your ear after surfing all day, the scientific name for surfer’s ear is exostoses.  

What Are The Surfer’s Ear Symptoms? 

Nowadays, we are lucky enough to be able to surf in any water at any temperature. Wetsuits are amazing and allow us to surf for hours in sub zeros and in destinations as far-flung as Alaska, Iceland, and Tasmania. But surfing in such places (particularly if you live and surf there every day) comes with an increased risk of surfer’s ear. Some common symptoms include: 

  • Loss of hearing 
  • Water stuck in the ear 
  • Middle ear infections 
  • Ear pain 
Surfer's ear symptom
Surfers ear symptom

When you can’t get that water out by shaking your head or stuffing your index finger in there–it’s super frustrating. While surfer’s ear can happen to surfers of all ages and abilities, it’s most common for surfers who have surfed in cold water most of their lives and who are in their mid-30s. So now we know the symptoms, how do you treat a surfer’s ear?  

How to Treat Surfer’s Ear

There are several ways to treat a surfer’s ear, but before it gets to the point of needing treatment, you must look for the early signs and put preventative measures in place. 

Recognize the Early Signs 

Early signs of surfers ear include loss of hearing, having water stuck in the ear after surfing, pain in your ears, etc., all the annoyances of surfing consistently in cold water. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, get checked for the early signs of exostoses by a doctor. 

They’ll be able to tell you if you have early onset surfers ear or not. However, there is something else worth considering if you have experienced these symptoms. I surf all the time and went to get checked for the surfer’s ear after water was lodged in there for days, and I couldn’t hear! The doctor told me I have no signs of surfer’s ear yet (I’m 26), but often water gets trapped behind ear wax, leading to infection. 

Non-surgical Remedies for Surfer’s Ear? 

Initially, surfers ear doesn’t require treatment; if it’s early or you just have an infection, antibiotics are usually prescribed to treat it. 

Surgical Remedies for Surfer’s Ear? 

Surfer's ear surgery
Surfers ear surgery

When things become more serious, when bone grows over the ear canal, partially or completely, surfer’s ear requires treatment. Unfortunately, once the bone starts growing, it doesn’t stop you get it surgically removed. There are two methods you can go about it: 

By incision – The most common way of treating surfer’s ear is where a pigeon makes an incision behind the patient’s ear and drills into the bone to remove it. 

By Microchisel – This involved chiseling away the bone growth to clear it. Afterward, a thin sheet of plastic silicone is applied inside the ear to protect the treated area and is removed 3 weeks later. 

How to Prevent Surfer’s Ear? 

By far, the best way to treat surfer’s ear is to prevent it in the first place! Ultimately, there is only one way you can prevent surfers ear entirely and that’s to avoid surfing in cold water. But you and I both know you won’t be doing that, so the next best option is to wear earplugs and/or a hood for super cold winter sessions. 

You can purchase custom earplugs online or buy a good set from any decent surf shop or grab standard-sized earplugs over the counter for surfers and swimmers. In my experience, although I don’t have surfers ear (yet), I often use earplugs to avoid infections when surfing in dirty water. (After it rains in Bali) and have found cheap earplugs usually fall out, and it’s well worth investing in a customized pair. 

Final Thoughts 

There’s no doubt looking after your ears is a crucial part of being a surfer, and getting constant ear infections and being unable to hear is no badge of honor for being a hardcore surfer, far from it. It’s just annoying. So whether you’ve got early onset surfers ear or want to avoid it before it starts happening, wear ear plugs (invest in good ones), wear a hood if you’re surfing in cold water, and generally take care of your ear health. We’re not going to stop surfing in cold water, and nor should we but always take your ears seriously.  

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