Surfer’s Ear


Surfer’s ear, which is the common name for exostosis, develops when there is abnormal bone growth in the ear canal. The ear canal becomes constricted and thick, which leads to conductive hearing loss. Earwax and shed cells can become trapped in the canal, leading to frequent middle ear infections. The most common reason why people get surfer’s ear is exposure to cold water and windy conditions that blow the water into the ear canal. That is why the condition is prevalent in people who surf, swim, or dive.

Symptoms of Surfer’s Ear

Surfer’s ear is most common among adults in their mid-30s. The growths present as small, bony lumps in the external ear canal. They grow slowly and take years to develop. The thin layers of bone grow in response to cold water or air. Many people get them in both ears, but the exostoses can grow at different rates. The growths do not go away without intervention, but it could take years before you notice they are there. In most people, the ear canal is about the diameter of a #2 pencil. You may not notice symptoms until the canal’s diameter is only half its normal size. Some early symptoms include an increase in ear infections, water entrapment in the ear canal, and a loss of hearing sensitivity.

Preventing Surfer’s Ear

Today’s high-tech wet and dry diving suits have led to a 600 percent increase in the rate of development of exostoses in cold water surfers when compared to people who surf or dive in warm water. You can prevent surfer’s ear by taking precautions such as avoiding swimming, diving, or surfing during high wind conditions or in very cold water. You can also purchase custom-fit ear plugs and wear a swimming cap or diving suit with an attached hood.

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Treatment for Surfer’s Ear

If you have a small exostosis that is not bothering you, it may not need to be treated. If you have experienced any hearing loss, recurrent ear infections, or pain, you should visit a neurotologist, which as an ear sub-specialist who works on the bones of the ears. One of these specialists can remove the exostoses through surgery.

There are two surgical methods. One method is through an incision behind the ear and removing the growth with a drill. The other uses a micro chisel to remove the growth from within the ear canal. A piece of thin silicone is inserted into your ear to protect it. The sheet is removed about three weeks after surgery. Surgical recovery is quick, and most discomfort is easily controlled with an oral pain reliever or ear drops. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to prevent an infection and to keep the silicone sheet moist. You will need to avoid exposing your ear to cold water for two to six weeks after surgery.

Most people achieve complete success after exostoses surgery. New growths could form with repeated cold water exposure, so patients are recommended to use ear plugs.