COMMON SURFER’S EAR QUESTIONS

Exostosis can be an earful so we decided to simplify some of the common questions among surfers and other water athletes…pun intended.

doctor check surfear

  • What is Surfer’s Ear?

Surfer’s Ear (Exostosis) is extra bone growth in the ear canal typically caused by the cooling effects of repeated exposure to cold water and wind. Surfer’s Ear is common not only among surfers but also water sports such as windsurfing, kayaking, open water swimming, diving, sailing, and kitesurfing.

  • What are the symptoms?

During early stages of surfer’s ear there are usually no noticeable symtoms. AS it develops further water getting stuck in the ear is a common first symptom, which often leads to recurring  ear infections. If it get bad it can also cause hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing sounds in the ear). Eventually surgery gets necessary to remove the extra bone. 

  • How do you prevent Surfer’s Ear?

→ You can lessen your chance of developing Surfer’s Ear by wearing earplugs or staying out of cold water.

  • How cold does the water need to be to cause Surfer’s Ear?  

Anything below 68 °F or 20 °C stimulates bone growth, but in combination with wind you can be at risk also in higher temperatures. 

  • How long does it take to develop severe Surfer’s Ear?

→  It varies how fast it develops from person to person. But important factors are how much time is spent in the cold elements and how cold the conditions are. 

  • What is the difference between Surfer’s Ear and Swimmer’s Ear?

‘Surfer’s Ear’ is the layered bone growth that occurs in the ear canal as a response to repeated exposure to cold water. Whereas ‘Swimmer’s Ear’ is a bacterial infection of the skin of the ear canal that causes swelling of the ear canal skin and is painful and is usually treated/cured with antibiotic ear drops. If you have Surfer’s Ear you might be at higher risk to develop Swimmer’s Ear, because when water get trapped in your ears it creates a moist environment where bacteria will thrive. 

  • Why do I get infections every time I go to warmer waters from colder waters?

→ Warmer water tends to have more bacteria in it and people traveling from colder waters are more likely to already have some degree of Surfer’s Ear, which leads to the bacteria laden water getting trapped in the ear and contributing to infection of the ear canal skin.  

  • When is surgery necessary?

→ Surgery is recommended when the bone growths cause intolerable symptoms — repeated water trapping; infections; and trapping of debris in the ear canal.

  • How is the surgery performed?

→ The traditional method is to drill out the bone growth. In order for the surgeon to access the ear canal with the drill, the outer ear needs to be cut from behind and flapped over. Once the surgery is done the ear is stitched back, and the patient have to stay out of the water for several weeks. There is another technique where the bone instead are removed with a chisel, which is more gentle as it doesn’t require to cut the ear open and usually the recover time is shorter. The chiseling technique harder to perform for the surgeon why there are not to many using this technique yet. 

Reviewed by Dr. Douglas Hetzler. 

Art by @aiswing.