Protect your ears before you ride the waves

You may be forgiven for thinking that surfers only worry about the next big wave but there is a little-known link between open water sports and severe ear damage called surfers ear which is now increasingly being talked about in the sporting arena. Illustrator Pete Galvin (54) from Loosely Row in Bucks is a regular surfer and has first-hand experience of the impact that the viscous open seas can have on our ears and hearing. He never thought about protecting his ears whilst riding the waves until one day he suddenly went deaf.

“All I remember was experiencing tinnitus-like symptoms and then all of a sudden completely losing my hearing. I knew something was badly wrong so booked an appointment with Aston Hearing who immediately were able to diagnose I had Surfer’s Ear in both ears because they could see some significant bony lumps which were closing up my ear canals. My ear canals were about 98% blocked.  I was referred to my local Ear Nose and Throat consultant who made the swift decision to operate to try and save my hearing.”

Long term exposure to the force of the water, cold temperature and strong wind speed can cause abnormal bone growth in the structure of the ear canal called Exostoses, otherwise known as ‘surfers ear’, in severe cases this can lead to hearing loss. Some surfers get surfers ear more on one side than the other as they surf a particular local break regularly exposing one ear more to the elements as they sit on their board positioned in one direction waiting between sets.

It is thought that up to 80% of surfers (or cold-water sports men and women) develop surfer’s ear after 10 years of water activity.

Head audiologist at Aston Hearing, Duncan Collet-Fenson says: “Surfer’s ear is completely different from swimmer’s ear and we need surfers and outdoor water enthusiasts to be more aware of it. Caused by continuous exposure to the cold sea and winds, left untreated it can result in significant hearing loss. When surfing, individuals experience cold air passing through the ears. As a means of protecting the ear canal, the body begins to grow more bone within it and overtime these begin to block the ear canal. What makes the condition even worse is that having a blocked or even slightly blocked ear canal means water is more easily trapped within the ear, making individuals more prone to infection as well.

“As well as surfers, anyone regularly in and out of cold water can be hit by this condition; so that includes those participating in sports such as wind surfing, open water swimming, kite-surfing and kayaking.

“If you spend a lot of time in the sea, we thoroughly recommend you have your ears checked and hearing tested on a regular basis. Prevention is better than cure and you can protect against this condition by wearing custom-moulded ear plugs made of medical grade silicone. Surfer’s ear is progressive, and its effects are far easier to manage and reverse if caught early.”

Symptoms of surfer’s ear include a feeling of fullness or difficulty clearing water from the ears, recurrent ear infections, pain in the ear and experiencing general hearing difficulties.

Prior to his diagnosis, Pete had never heard of surfer’s ear. “I didn’t realise I should protect my ears when wind-surfing, mountain biking or surfing, particularly in cold or poor weather! Before, I would go out surfing for hours at a time, in all seasons and whatever the weather.  Ear protection just wasn’t on my radar. Experiencing surfer’s ear really shook me up, particularly when I went deaf.  I don’t want to give up my sport, so I religiously use my bespoke ear plugs now. I now understand the impact that continuous exposure to the elements can have and always warn anyone that I see out there who is surfing without any ear protection.”

Aston Hearing has three practices in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.