Why Should I Protect My Ears This Winter?
“Surfer’s ear” is the common name for a condition caused by cold water and wind. If your ears are over-exposed to the elements without protection, they might take matters into their own hands. The ear canal starts to narrow by growing boney lumps, hence, protecting itself from the intrusive cold. This can lead to loss of hearing, pain in the ears and susceptibility to infections. Whilst surfer’s ear can be prevented, if it becomes a problem sufferers may require intrusive surgery to cure the issue.
Auditory exostosis, the medical name for surfer’s ear, isn’t limited to surfers alone. Anyone who spends a lot of time outside in cold environments and by the water can suffer; swimmers, divers, windsurfers, sailors and kayakers are all at risk, but there are methods of protection you can take.
If you’re mostly above water, such as on a boat or working harbour-side, a warm hat pulled over your ears should suffice, but for those of us that risk cold water entering the ears, ear plugs are the best form of protection. We chatted with SurfEars, a company that creates special ear plugs for surfers, swimmers and water-lovers.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself, the business and your role within it?
My name is Christian Dittrich, I’m 44 years old and live on the south coast of Sweden. I've been passionate about water sports since a young age and have spent over thirty years surfing, windsurfing, kiting and, since recently, foiling the cold waters of the Baltic Sea.
I've got a background in engineering and I've always been a curious tinkerer who loves to build things and then try them out to see if they work.
Earlabs, the company behind SurfEars is a small yet global company, selling our products in over 30 countries. We're six employees based in beautiful Kåseberga, just metres from Sweden's best longboard wave.
Apart from having overall responsibility for the business I really enjoy working hands-on with product development and helping out wherever it's needed in the company.
What led you to start SurfEars? Did you suffer yourself?
I was an active swimmer as kid and have had water-related ear problems all my life. I've always had to wear earplugs in the water; waxed cotton as a kid and then various forms of wax or silicone plugs as I started surfing as teenager. I always thought earplugs were a big hassle, taking away much of the experience and ability to hear. Once I even missed a start in a swim competition from not hearing the signal.
Fast forward a few years and I became an engineer working at Nokia developing mobile phones. There I came into contact with acoustic materials specifically developed to protect from water and dust, but transmit sound without distortion or reducing volume. Inspiration struck, and I designed a hollow earplug with an acoustic membrane at the end. It worked way above expectations.
This was the starting point for SurfEars and what later became the company Earlabs in 2014.
What causes surfer’s ear?
I believe there are a few different theories about why people develop surfer's ear (or exostosis), one being that the skin in your ear is extremely thin, has lots of small blood vessels and no protective layer of fat underneath. When cold water and wind enters your ear canal there's increased blood flow, which as a protective mechanism (or weird side effect) causes thin layers of cartilage to form under the skin. The cartilage eventually becomes bone and after a significant amount of time in the water you will start to see bone lumps forming in the ear canal, and eventually closing it up.
There are a few studies that indicate that waters of 18 degrees C or below is where surfer's ear starts to happen. The colder the temperature and the more hours in the water, the faster it will happen to you.
Do rowers, swimmers, kayakers etc. need to use ear plugs?
Absolutely, anyone who is exposed to cold water and wind is affected and at risk of surfer's ear. We're out doing a lot of ear checks these days and we see surfer's ear not only on surfers but on cold water swimmers, kayakers, free-divers, kite-surfers and many others.
What are the first signs of surfer’s ear, and can it be prevented before it appears?
An early sign can be water getting trapped in your ear frequently, however you don't really notice that you have surfer's ear until it's very late and your ear is almost closed off.
At that stage problems may escalate quickly and you might have to have ear surgery, which is not that nice and has some risks associated with it.
Using earplugs (and/or a hood) in the water to keep your ears warm and dry is an effective way to avoid surfer's ear, or if you already have symptoms, to prevent further bone growth.
I've got 90% closed ear canals myself, but luckily they haven't got worse since I started wearing the first prototypes of SurfEars almost 10 years ago.
My ears are so bad that I can’t go in the water without plugs or I'll get blocked hearing for days. Earplugs have really helped me as I can continue surfing without problems.
Where and when should water-users start wearing ear plugs? Is it only in winter, or when you begin to notice a problem?
Spring and autumn are often the worst as the water and air gets colder, but people are still surfing without a hood.
As stated before, anything below 18 degrees C is when you should consider wearing earplugs, however we also see people developing surfer's ear in warmer places so there's good reason to wear plugs year round.
Are there any other precautions to take once you’ve been diagnosed with surfer’s ear?
Wearing earplugs to prevent further bone growth is an easy way to do something about it. It's also a good idea to be extra careful in contaminated water as any water getting trapped inside can easily cause infections and, potentially, temporary lost hearing as your ears close off.
Can you describe the medical procedure that is undertaken if surfer’s ear needs to be operated on?
The traditional way has been to cut the ear open at the back, fold it forward and then drill and chisel away the bone lumps before stitching the ear back in place. It's very loud when drilling so there's risk of hearing loss and there are nerves close to where you cut, which if damaged can cause permanent issues with your cheek muscles. You can count on at least 6 weeks out of the water after an operation, too.
There are less invasive methods (chisel without cutting the ear loose) performed by a few skilled doctors in the US and Japan, but these procedures are not commonly available everywhere yet.
You can learn more about SurfEars by clicking here. If you'd like to purchase a pair, you'll find them stocked at most local surf shops!