By Paul Frediani
Editors note: Listen up, groms. I know earplugs look dorky, but before you blow them off have an otologist (an ear doctor) describe to you in excruciating detail the procedure necessary to clear your surfer's ear (as well as how long you will be out of the water). I should know, after 20 San Diego winters my ears are over 90% closed and the time to pay the drill-wielding piper is nigh.
Photo: John Eckert
Imagine standing on the edge of a cliff watching a beautiful point break, seeing big blue rollers, smell of the salt water and the sound of the crashing waves. Now imagine it if you stuck your fingers in your ears. Like watching a movie with no sound. That's what your sensory perception would be like if you have a bad case of exostosis AKA "surfer's ear." A recent study at the American Academy of Otolaryngology says that 40% of surfers suffer from external auditory exostosis.
Keeping your ears warm and clean will delay, perhaps indefinitely, the need for someone (hopefully a licensed physician) from taking a drill to your ears.
Cold water has been long suspected of causing exostosis, which is basically bone growth in your ear canal. Those who surf in water colder than 60 degrees are at a greater risk. Dr. David Koon of the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk says, "Cold water surfers were six times more likely to have exostosis than those who surfed in predominantly warm water." If the bony growth continues it may result in total hearing loss, in which case surgery (canaloplasty) may be called on to restore hearing. Exostosis can also create another serious ear problem: it can hinder proper drainage of the ear canal, which can lead to very painful ear infections.
Avoiding cold water may be the best remedy, but what's the likelihood that you're going to give up the best big wave season of the year? So the next best thing is keeping your head and ears warm and dry. There are excellent earplugs that keep the ear canal dry and hoods that will keep the head warm available.
Another effective preventive measure, which I can personally attest to, is irrigating the ear canal after a surf session with isopropyl alcohol (91%). After the water evaporates from the ear canal the residual alcohol will dry the ear canal. Adding an ounce of white vinegar per quart of alcohol also helps retard bacterial and fungal growth. I keep an eyedropper in my car and put a couple of drops in each ear after each surf session, and I have not experienced an ear ache in years.
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