Surfer’s Ear

The Surf Accessory No One Wants

Understand the risks, learn the signs and stop surfer’s ear before your hearing suffers.

Towering waves stacked to the horizon, wind whistling about your ears, snot running down your face, salt spray in your eyes – when it comes to the biting cold of the ocean in winter, most of us would sooner hit snooze rather than brave the elements. But for many surfers, winter is the time to be up and out there before dawn. 

Great white sharks, jagged reefs, monster swells whipped up from the Indian, Southern and Pacific Oceans – it can all be risky business. But if you’re one of the daring few who relishes the challenge of surfing through winter, there’s another risk you may not have contemplated: surfer’s ear (aka exostosis). Here we break down the symptoms, treatments and preventative techniques so you can focus on your bottom turn.

Surfer’s ear explained

Basically, your ears can be too smart for their own good. So smart, in fact, that when you spend a lot of time in wet, cold, windy conditions, you can develop bony growths – exostoses – to keep the foul weather out of your ear canals. Prolonged exposure to inhospitable environments can cause these bony growths to continue to develop, layer by layer, like an onion. Eventually, you may have more bone in your ear than actual canal. When left untreated, surfer’s ear can cause serious problems: from muffled hearing through to total deafness.

How do you know if you have surfer’s ear

We’ve all experienced that annoying sensation of having an ear full of water. Sloshing around, unwelcome water can muffle your hearing for hours… even days. You might have tried to dance it out, shaking your head vigorously as you hop up and down on one foot. As your ear canals stay wetter for longer, they also become more prone to infections. So, if the waterlogged muffle-shuffle becomes a regular part of your post-surf routine and your ears are causing you illness or discomfort, you might be experiencing the first signs of surfer’s ear.  

What can you do about surfer’s ear?

The bad news is: it’s increasingly common. Advancements in wetsuit technology allow us to spend more time in icy conditions. And cold-water surfers are six times more likely to get surfer’s ear than our tropical cousins. The good news is: it’s 100% treatable. Previously, the surgery required large incisions behind the ears. But now, surgeons perform a relatively non-invasive procedure using tiny chisels or lasers inserted directly into the ear canal. Don’t freak out. You’ll most likely be home the same day. The only painful part is the month-or-two layoff from surfing. So you might want to dust off your golf clubs.

Block it before you block up

If you’re noticing regular ear-canal waterlogging, muffled hearing in one or both ears or more frequent infections, your first stop should be at a hearing care professional’s. If you don’t yet require surgery, great news! Try using these preventative items to keep surfer’s ear at bay:

  • Earplugs allow sound in while keeping water out
  • Wetsuit hoods for wind protection 
  • Eardrops for water extraction
  • And a blow dryer for post-surf evaporation (and general face-melting) purposes

When you’re battling the elements in the depths of winter, you need all of your five senses on-point. And when you catch that wave of the day, you don’t want to miss the distant ‘whoop!’ from your mates in the carpark. So, get on top of surfer’s ear before it puts a dampener on your winter surfing. 

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