Kelly Slater water in ear

The WORST! Photo: WSL

The Inertia

Editor’s Note: You can learn more basic first aid tips and tricks from the folks at Surf Aid Kit, who built a specialized safety kit every traveling wave-rider can use. Check out Surf Aid Kit on Instagram too. 

I grew up hearing (pun intended) about things like surfer’s ear, earaches, ear infections, and swimmer’s ear, but it wasn’t until I first experienced my own ear problems that I decided to dig a little deeper and figure out which one was affecting me. Surfer’s ear and swimmer’s ear, in particular, are common issues for surfers that may seem like one-and-the-same, but their symptoms and treatments can actually be wildly different and learning how to recognize each can be a major advantage.

Surfer’s Ear Key Points:
– Surfer’s ear is a bone growth (exostosis) in the ear canal usually caused by repeated exposure to cold water and/or wind.
– This bone growth causes the ear canal to be narrowed, which means you are more likely to get an infection as it easily traps water.
– Water temperature around 20 °C (68 °F) stimulates bone growth, but when you add wind chill, you can be at risk in warmer water temperatures.
– This is also common in water sports like windsurfing, kayaking, open water swimming, diving, sailing, and kitesurfing (which a lot of surfers also do).
– The time it takes for surfer’s ear to develop varies from person to person and depends on how cold and exposed you are to the elements – and how often.
– It is very common! A lot of people get surfer’s ear but it doesn’t always develop to the same degree for everybody, meaning it’s barely noticeable for some.
-Many people notice they have surfer’s ear when they travel from colder climates to warmer climates and develop ear infections, as warmer waters can often have higher concentrations of bacteria.

Caused By:
– Exposure to cold water and wind. A combination of the two heightens the risk, as the wind creates a chill factor when your ears are wet.
– The extra bone growth is thought to be the body’s defense mechanism to protect the eardrum.
-However, that growth doesn’t go away. In fact, it continues to grow.
-The bone growth increases with lower temperatures and more frequent exposure.

– None in the early stages.
– As it develops, you may notice water getting stuck in you ear more often after a surf or an increase in infections.
– When surfer’s ear is severe, it can cause hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing sounds in the ear).
– Traveling from a cold water home to a warm water holiday and getting an ear infection is typically a good indicator you’ve been living with surfer’s ear.

– Surgery. When the bone growths cause symptoms that can no longer be tolerated, like repeated water trapping, infections, or trapping of debris in the ear canal, it’s time for surgery.
– A surgeon drills out the bone growth, which involves cutting and stitching the ear. This is followed by several weeks out of the water, or another option is a chiseling technique that requires no cuts and leaves a shorter recovery time.  Either way, it sucks.

– Wear earplugs.
– Wear a hoodie or hat with ear flaps.
– Don’t surf in cold water frequently, if possible.

Swimmer’s Ear Key Points:
– Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear canal that runs from the eardrum to the outside of the head.
– It’s usually self-diagnosable, where the main symptoms are redness in the outer ear accompanied by warmth and pain.
– People may experience a feeling of “fullness” in the ear, hearing loss, itching, redness, or tenderness, and mucus/discharge.
– Just like any infection, it may spread deeper.

Caused by:
– Surfer’s ear is caused by water remaining in the ear after swimming or surfing.
– This creates a moist environment that helps bacteria or fungi grow, especially in warm, tropical places where there are more bacteria.
– Something getting stuck inside the ear, excessive ear cleaning, or contact with chemicals like hair dye or hairspray.
– Extra water removes ear wax, which is critical for stopping foreign bodies from getting into your ear.

-Use earplugs, a bathing cap, swimming cap, or wetsuit hood to keep water from getting in your ears.
– Use a towel to dry off your ears as soon as you’re out of the water.
– Try tilting your head or pulling the earlobe in different directions.
– Try holding a hairdryer on a low setting several inches from your ear until the ear feels dry.
– If you start getting problems (like consistent water in the ear), a doctor or physician can remove pus or drainage and make sure the infection isn’t causing another problem.
-If symptoms start to get worse, keep your ears dry.


Pro Tips for both:
– You could carry some Blu-tack in your Surf Aid Kit. I’ve used this multiple times.
– Avoid dirty, smelly river mouths that carry pollution and bacteria to the ocean.

This piece was presented by Surf Aid Kit


Only the best. We promise.


Join our community of contributors.


Weekly. Free.
Just like a set wave.

Everything that matters in surf + outdoors
directly to you inbox.

We take your privacy very seriously.
Unsubscribe at any time.
Subject to Terms and Conditions.

No thanks