The Truth Behind Surfers Ear

If you surf in California, especially in the Northern regions like Santa Cruz, you’ve likely heard of the strange health abnormality that has become a common problem amongst frequent surfers, the accursed “Surfers Ear”. This once rare and almost mythical health condition has long been dismissed amongst hardcore surfers. The truth is that more and more people are finding it hard to ignore their aching ears, recurring infections, and impaired hearing, and that Surfers Ear is not to be taken lightly.

Steamer Lane, where your legs will burn and your ears will ache.

What is Surfer’s Ear?

Surfers Ear, medically known as Exostosis, is a condition that occurs when your ear canal is frequently exposed to cold water. The ear, in an abnormal response to the repeated exposure, starts to grow a bone to cover up the ear canal. The result is that water can get in the ear, but not out, and causes aches and frequent infections. Anyone who frequently participates in a water sport is susceptible to the condition, but surfers, especially those in cold water like California, have a particularly high rate of occurrence, with the condition occurring 600% more in cold than in warm water.

What are common Symptoms?

The developing stages of Surfers Ear are characterized by ear aches in and out of the water, infrequent infections and mild hearing loss. In the more severe stages the pain becomes intolerable, you can become near-deaf, and the infections more frequent and severe. Most cases are people in their mid-30’s and older, but the condition can occur in groms as young as 17.

How do you cure it?

Unfortunately, once the bone has grown in your ear canal, it will not recede. The only solution – a painful and expensive one – is to get surgery. The surgery is a brutal one, doctors literally drill through your bone growth to open your ears back up. It’s not cheap either, costs can range from $3,000-$5,000, depending on the severity of your condition. It will also keep you from surfing, for around two months for recovery. It’s not a fun experience, all around.

How can you prevent it?

The best way to prevent Surfers Ear is to cover your ears, any way you can.

  1. Ear plugs are the best measure, as they block the cold water while allowing you to keep your head exposed. You’ll want to make sure they are ear plugs designed for surfing like Surf Ears, so that you can depend on them to stay in your ear even when you’re getting pounded by an overhead set.
  2. A hood can also work to block the constant battering of cold water against the ear canal. For those who don’t like ear plugs this may be a better option. The only downside is it may be hot if the air is warm.
  3. Ear irrigation with a solution, or a homemade mix of equal parts white vinegar, rubbing alcohol, and warm tap water can help disinfect potential infections from debris trapped in the ear. This is a good post-surf measure that can be used to clear out the nastiness that may be trapped inside.
A courageous soul about to brave the paddle at Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Luckily, he’s protecting his ears with a hood.

So, if you’ve been writing off Surfers Ear as something that only happens to old-timers, it’s time to start taking it seriously. Though you may not hear about it amongst the macho chatter in the lineup, don’t be fooled, it’s out there, and it’s affecting surfers of all ages. You should consider preventive measures now, not later, if not for every session, at least for the big days when your ear canals are getting hammered. Think about it this way: every day you surf without ear plugs is putting you closer to having to pay someone $5,000 to drill your ears.

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