Common Surfer’s Ear Questions

Exostosis can be an earful so we decided to simplify some of the common questions among surfers and extreme 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 in surfers but also other watersports such as surfing, kayaking, jetskiing, divingswimming, sailing, and kitesurfing.

  • Why should I care about Surfer’s Ear?

→ You should care about preventing Surfer’s Ear if you want decrease your chances of developing water retention in the ear canal; ear infections; hearing loss; tinnitus (ringing sounds in the ear); and the need for surgery.

  • What are the symptoms?

→ Water getting stuck in the ear is a common first symptom of surfer’s ear but sometimes there are no symptoms.

  • 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.

  • 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. In more severe cases, people can even get both ‘Swimmer’s/Surfer’s Ear’ at the same time.

  • 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.

Reviewed by Dr. Douglas Hetzler.

Art by @aiswing.