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What is a surfer's ear and how do you prevent it?

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Nothing more annoying than being unable to do your favorite sport due to a condition. Surfers or people who swim at a professional level often experience what is known as a surfer's ear. What exactly is a surfer's ear? How does it occur and what can you do to solve or prevent it? All questions that need clear answers and you'll find them here.

What is a surfer's ear?

To get right to the point: a surfer's ear occurs when bone grows in the ear canal of the ears as a result of contact with cold
water and wind. These are called exostoses, or bone mounds, which form a thickening in the ear. This can cause a lot of unpleasant consequences, including worse hearing and frequent ear infections.

As is the case with most conditions, it is better to prevent rather than cure this problem. How exactly does this bone growth in a surfer's ear work and, not unimportantly, how is it different from a swimmer's ear?

Swimmer's ear or surfer's ear?

The problem with that unnatural bone growth is that the passage of the ear canal becomes narrower, making it more likely to become blocked. If there is a lot of earwax in the ears in the process, it can lead to infection or even recurring infections.

There is indeed a difference between a surfer's ear and a swimmer's ear. An infection of the ear canal on the other hand can also lead to swimmer's ear, which is one of the possible symptoms of the condition.

Why is surfer's ear called that? Quite obviously: it occurs mostly in surfers who often exercise in cold water. However, that does not mean that other water sports enthusiasts cannot suffer from it. Any activity or sport where contact with cold water or cold wind is unavoidable poses a risk for developing this condition.


  • Windsurfing
  • Kayaking
  • Jet skiing
  • Sailing
  • Diving
  • Kitesurfing

Is surfer's ear more dangerous for older athletes?

Most people who suffer from this condition are between the ages of 30 and 40. This is most likely due to the fact that this unnatural bone growth is very slow, so you won't notice it much in the first years of your swimming, surfing or diving career.

The average ear canal is about 7 mm in diameter and has a volume of about 1.5 ml. Once the ear canal becomes narrower, between 0.5 and 2 mm, athletes continue to seek professional help because their hearing is noticeably negatively affected.

At what temperature do surfer's ears develop?

As mentioned above, surfer's ear arises mainly on contact with cold water and chilly wind, which is of course inevitable in sports like surfing. The question then becomes: how cold must that water and wind be to result in this condition?

It depends on the person in question. In general, athletes who surf in water that is 20° Celsius or colder are as much as six times more likely to contract surfers' ear than those who exercise regularly in warm water. At a temperature of only 10° Celsius, of course, that chance is then many times higher still.

This makes the risk of surfer's ear in such sports practiced in the Netherlands all the greater. Therefore, the advice to put in earplugs while practicing these sports, from wave surf to windsurf wave, is there for a reason.

Finally, of course, the risk of surfers ear is a lot higher in people who are very often in cold water. So recreational athletes who spend a few hours surfing a few times a year need not worry about it right away.

So who is at high risk? Professional athletes or serious amateurs who don't let even the winter cold and wind stop them from surfing for a few hours every day. As admirable as that may be, this condition is something you'd rather avoid anyway.

The main symptoms of surfer's ears

Since surfer's ear is quite similar to other similar conditions (such as swimmer's ear), it is not exactly easy to know if you suffer from it.

Here is some more about the main symptoms:

1. Hearing loss

One of the most common symptoms of surfer's ear is natural hearing loss. This is due to the ear canal becoming narrowed due to unnatural bone growth. In some cases, this hearing loss is temporary, but often (especially in professional athletes who catch it too late) it is permanent.

2. Ear infections-and pain

Another common consequence of surfer's ear is inflammation or ear pain. This is due to the increased pressure in the ear, as well as the presence of bacteria in the ear canal.

As already mentioned, the risk of ear infection and associated ear pain is also a lot higher in people who have too much earwax in their ears. So cleaning your ears regularly is a good way to prevent this problem.

3. Muffled feeling in the ears

Next, with surfers ear, you may also feel that your hearing is muffled, as if you are underwater. This is because both water and dirt are not properly removed from the ear due to the narrowing of the ear canal.

4. Dizziness

Finally, you may also feel dizzy if you suffer from surfer's ear. This is a result of the infection of your ear canal, which can also affect or inflame the balance organ between your ears.

How to prevent surfer's ears? The best tips and tools

Knowing what surfer's ear is and how it occurs is obviously important if you want to prevent this problem. The key question then is: how do you do that and what measures can you take to reduce the risk of surfer's ear? The tips below will help you get started:

1. Avoid prolonged activity in water in cold weather

Prevention is better than cure and that includes a condition like surfers' ear. The best way to avoid it is not to stay in the water too long when it is very cold or windy. It is also best not to exercise near or on the water for too long when weather conditions are adverse.

2. Keep the ear canal dry

In doing so, it is important to keep your ear canal as dry as possible. You can do this by quickly and thoroughly cleaning your ears with a towel after exercising. A simple measure, but one that dramatically reduces the risk of this condition.

3. Use custom-made earplugs or otoplastics

Another good tool are custom-made earplugs, also called otoplastics. Custom-made earplugs completely seal your ears and ensure that they stay dry inside. By means of a gel-kuids filter you can still hear your surroundings. In addition, custom-made earplugs are very comfortable, so you do not feel uncomfortable during sports.

Custom swim earplugs

4. Wear a swim cap

The swim cap may be a very simple part of the standard swimming equipment, but it can save you a lot of trouble. Just make sure your swim cap fits well and that it is truly waterproof.

5. Go for a neoprene hood

If you like to take it a step further than a regular swim cap, you can also usea neoprene cap or surf cap. Such a cap consists of water-repellent material and covers your entire face (including your ears). There are also variants that have an additional neck flap, further reducing the risk of water in your ears.

Do you protect your ears from cold, water and wind with the above tools and tips? Then the risk of surfers ear will immediately be a lot smaller and thus you will enjoy your favorite water sport much more.


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