What causes surfer’s ear?
Repeated exposure of your ear canal to cold water and wind can cause “surfer’s ear”. It’s the cooling of the ear canal that stimulates bone growth. Bone growth can start to block your ear canal, changing the way sound travels to the ear drum, and increases the risk of infection due to water getting trapped behind the bony lumps.
Doctors and nurses call surfers ear, “exostosis of the external auditory canal”. Operating on exostoses is among the most challenging surgeries that an Ear Nose and Throat Surgeon can perform. For the patient it can be challenging too, as the mere thought of someone drilling or chiselling out excess bone growing in your ear canal is pretty terrifying!
Some surfers have large exostoses on one side, and small or none on the other. Presumably this is because of the prevailing wind direction at their local beaches. Some people are also more inclined to develop exostoses and it’s thought this could be due to genetic reasons.
Surfer’s ear is not the same as swimmer’s ear. Exostoses are not caused by infection. However, it carries the risk of ear infection of the outer ear canal, or otitis externa. You may have surfers ear, and because of the water trapped inside your ear is causing infection, you will likely initially present with symptoms of swimmer’s ear.
It should also be noted surfing is not the only activity that can cause exostosis. Swimming, diving, skiing and even driving a convertible can cause bone growths in the ear.
Surfer’s ear symptoms
Early symptoms of surfer’s ear include water becoming trapped in the ear more frequently and it also becomes harder to get the water out. If the water remains trapped for long enough, this increases the risk of ear infections. If your ear canal narrows further with continued growth of the exostoses, infections can take longer to settle, and become more frequent.
Even grater narrowing of the ear canal due to growth of the exostoses will eventually result in hearing loss. Complete closure of the ear canal may require surgery, whereby the bony growth is “drilled out”.
As they say prevention is better than cure, particularly when the cure can mean a chisel in your ear canal. The best prevention is to protect your ears from cold water and wind when you can. Ear plugs, ear muffs, or a hat that helps shield your ears may help. Specialised swimmers or surfers ear plugs that may be custom fit, work well for those who frequent, cold, wet and windy environments.