It’s recently been called to my attention that my eardrums are perhaps not in best shape possible, certainly not for someone who’s only 19. The first clue was when I went to get my impressions done for my new ear plugs. Admittedly, I was expecting some comment on the diameter of my ear canal from the audiologist, but instead I was greeted with an audible gasp when she looked into my ear and a rather harsh follow-up interview about what had caused the damage (perhaps deservedly). In this blog post I’m going to explain what surfer’s ear is, what causes it, and why you should wear earplugs that fit properly.

What is surfer’s ear?

Surfer’s ear (also referred to as swimmer’s ear) is where exposure to cold water or wind conditions results in bony growths, which narrow and eventually cut off the ear canal. The more your ears are exposed to the former conditions, the more likely it is that this problem will result, and the faster the growths will occur. This can happen in (as is the case with me) as little as five years of regular watersports activity, but for people who participate in watersports more infrequently, or who immerse themselves less, it can take closer to 15 years to develop. Below you can see a normal ear canal and eardrum (left), compared to mine (right)…

What does surfer’s ear do?

This narrowing of the ear canal has a few effects. The most obvious (and most worrying) is hearing loss, however it is long before you notice any decrease in hearing that you will feel a fullness within the ear and experience an increase in ear infections. The feeling of fullness is fairly self-explanatory (as your ear canal is being filled), but the ear infections are caused by water becoming more easily trapped behind the growths. As such, difficulty clearing water from your ears, an increase in ear infections, or a recurrence of them are all key symptoms of surfer’s ear. Finally, while your ear canal must be closed by 90% for hearing loss to become severe – an achievement I haven’t unlocked just yet – any hearing loss at all is cause for concern… why am I still smiling on the cover photo?

Treatment and Prevention

Surfer’s ear is irreversible, except via surgery. This “minor” (but still terrifying) surgery involves chiselling and occasionally drilling off the bony growths, and can involve the making of an incision to fold the ear forwards for better access. While you ponder upon that rather horrible image, it takes at least a month for the ear to heal from the procedure, during which it must be kept bone dry (see what I did there?). I think it’s evident that prevention is the best treatment, and that our retaliation should be made first. Ear plugs are the solution (assuming that no one wants to quit kayaking while they’re still healthy); they have the ability to prevent water from flushing in and out of your ears, keep them dry and protect them from the wind.

BUT… I’ve been wearing earplugs constantly for the past three years and yet I’ve revealed to you the reality that I will, almost certainly, require surgery at some point in my life. I had too much faith in poorly-made ear plugs. Quality matters and not all ear plugs are created equal. I used Mack’s ear plugs for a while, before switching to custom moulded plugs when I burst my eardrum in Canada. If you think about it, there’s no way that off-the-shelf plugs will keep your ears dry (frankly even custom ones let some moisture in) – everyone’s ear canal and outer ear are different shapes, and this shape changes to some extent when moving your jaw. The moulded plugs were a significant improvement, although intended as a temporary fix which led to them disintegrating and losing effectiveness over the course of two years. I now own a pair of Surfplugs (pictured below), all-in-all the same thing I’d already been using, just made of more durable materials and I hope that they represent a more permanent solution. The moral of the story is that off-the-shelf ear plugs don’t do the trick, so whatever you do, whichever brand you decide to use, make sure you get some custom-fitted ear plugs in order to prevent or slow down the progression of surfer’s ear. They’re expensive, they require visiting an audioligist for impressions (which are more like £50, not the £20 suggested on the Surfplugs website), and you’ll be scared to lose them… but personally I’m more scared of losing my hearing.

I hope you learned something from this article. If you would like to be emailed next time I post then be sure to sign up below!