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A swimmers guide to surfer’s ear

Surfer’s ear is the development of a bony growth in the ear canal from repeated exposure to cold water and wind.

It can be an unwanted accessory you get from enjoying the cold water, and while symptoms usually appear over a number of years, they can be quite painful and life-changing for some.

In this article, we take a deep dive into what causes surfer’s ear, the difference between swimmer’s ear, how to treat it and how you can prevent getting it.

What is Surfer’s Ear

Surfer’s ear also known as external auditory canal exostoses (EACE) or exostoses is a common condition caused by repeated exposure to the cold and wind.

Despite the name, this condition doesn’t just affect surfers but rather anyone who is regularly in the cold water, including open water swimmers, divers, kayakers, sailors and surfers.

Surfer’s ear is a different condition from swimmer’s ear. It causes a bony growth to develop within the ear, narrowing the ear canal and can lead to hearing loss, infections and blockages if not treated.

Those who swim in water under 20 degrees celsius are at risk of developing this condition as this is when bone growth is stimulated. Although, those in warmer water temperatures are also at risk when you factor in wind chill.

The time it takes to develop surfer’s ear varies from person to person, but it usually develops over time and can take anywhere between 10 – 15 years before symptoms start showing.

Diagram of Surfer’s ear

Swimmer’s ear vs Surfer’s ear

Surfer’s ear is a physical condition that may cause infections, whereas a swimmer’s ear is purely an infection.

  • Surfer’s ear is a malformation of bones in the ear that can cause water to become trapped and lead to infections.
  • Swimmer’s ear is when a moist environment is left unchecked in the ear canal which can lead to infection.

What causes Surfer’s Ear

Surfer’s ear is caused by regular exposure to wind and cold water below 20 degrees Celsius. When the cold water enters the ear canal it swirls around causing the body to respond by warming up the affected area.

This warming response triggers bone-producing cells in the ear canal to produce bony growths which are thought to be the body’s defence mechanism in protecting the eardrum.

While you may remove yourself from cold environments and start swimming in warm water, these growths don’t just go away, they continue to grow over time every time you are in a cold water environment.

Symptoms of Surfer’s Ear

There are many symptoms of surfer’s ear, so if you experience any of the symptoms in the list below, it is recommended you visit your GP or ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist early for treatment.

  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Water gets trapped in your ear more frequently
  • Impaired hearing or hearing loss
  • Tinnitus (ringing sounds in the ear)
  • Ear pain
  • Ear wax stuck in the ear canal
  • Ears feeling plugged
  • Itchy ear canal
  • Narrowing of the ear canal

Treating Surfer’s Ear

If you think you have Surfer’s ear, you should consult your doctor and they will examine your ear canal for bony growths.

Treatment for surfer’s ear depends on the severity of it but may include:

Ear drops or antibiotics

If your symptoms are mild you may need to take a course of ear drops or antibiotics.

Surgery

When symptoms become severe such as trapping of debris in the ear canal, loss of hearing and tinnitus, surgery may be required to remove the bony growth from your ear canal. Depending on the severity of the surgery, most patients will need to remain out of the water for anywhere up to six weeks to ensure full healing and to prevent new growths from developing.

How to prevent Surfer’s Ear

To ensure your love of the water and swimming isn’t affected by a case of surfer’s ear, prevention is the best medicine.

The following measures will reduce your risk of suffering from surfer’s ear:

  • Wear earplugs when you’re swimming in water below 20 degrees celsius or in warmer water with a high wind chill factor
  • Limit your exposure to cold water where possible
  • Dry the ear canal with a hairdryer following your swim. Keep the hair dryer on low heat and at least 30 centimetres away from the ear canal
  • Wear a neoprene skull cap to protect your ears
  • Wear a neoprene headband to cover and seal your ears

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