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Chances are big that when you are a traveling surfer, you’ve not only seen many beautiful surf spots (check my list of 10 intermediate-friendly surf spots here), you’ve also seen many ugly hospitals. We get hurt a lot. We endure fin cuts, reef cuts, abrasions, concussions, ear infections, and many more injuries and illnesses in our endless search to get our next fix.
A common problem, not only for surfers, are outer ear infections (Otitis Externa). Especially in warm climates where fungi love to get it on, they multiply like there’s no tomorrow in your outer ear canal.
Symptoms Ear Infections
Ear infections start with a slight pain on the outside of your ear. When you press it, it’s sensitive. Then, after a day or maybe a couple of hours, it starts to feel blocked. You can’t hear properly. It starts to hurt some more, from the inside. If you have wax or debris in your canal, and the fungi decide to party even harder, you are in real pain. So much so that you feel like pulling off a Van Gogh. Sucks even more if both of your ears are infected.
A more medical description* of the symptoms;
Otitis Externa usually starts off as an uncomfortable itchy feeling of the external ear canal. Mild redness and scaly skin can be seen at the mouth of the canal. It can then progress to a stage where it is very painful, especially when the auricle (ear shell) or tragus (the little protrusion in front of the ear canal) is touched or pulled. This pain upon movement of the ear is one of the distinguishing factors of Otitis Externa and can help you to differentiate it from Otitis Media. Further complications are hearing loss, discharge from the ear and severe local infection that can spread to surrounding structures.
I’ve had both of my ears infected last year, 5 times in 5 months. I’ve become an amateur expert on Indonesian hospitals. They had to suck both of my ears out one time. That is not something you want to do on your holiday. Or ever.
Incredibly stupid, I took 5 antibiotic treatments, not only in the form of pills but also in ear drops called ‘Otopain’. I should’ve known better but I was in so much pain, I would’ve taken anything (also, anti-biotics in Asia are widely available, they sell them over the counter in any pharmacy.
Doctors prescribe them to you way too easily). When that inevitably screwed up my digestive system, I started doing some research on natural ways to prevent and cure ear infections (and also on how to get my intestines back to normal, but that’s a story for another time).
By the way, I am not a doctor – as far as that wasn’t clear yet – so I just describe my own experience here. However, the advice below (which I follow) comes from an article written by 2 surfing doctors (Bart Willems and Christo Oosthuizen) on the prevention and cure of ear infection due to surfing or swimming. You can find their article on Surfingdoctors.com.
1. Use earplugs
Better late than never. I was already using them, but half-heartedly. I know earplugs can be annoying, but they’re so necessary. Actually, it’s not even that annoying. You just have to get used to not hearing anything in the water. It’s even more necessary when you surf in cold waters. Cold water surfers risk developing Surfer’s Ear. As described in the article above, it’s;
(…)a condition in which there is bony overgrowth of the external ear canal caused by repeated exposure to cold, wet conditions. It is so prevalent in the surfing community that we even got the naming rights – Surfer’s ear. Surfer’s ear also occurs in other disciplines that get their ears cold and wet. In the long term it can cause the canal to narrow, which in turn causes water to become trapped and increases the risk of infection and hearing loss.
You might think that this is something other surfers get. You’re different. You’re not surfing every day, you wear a cap in winter, you’ve never had ear problems…until you do.
What earplugs to use then?
I know surfers who get their earplugs specially molded for them to the shape of their ear for $100. They keep losing them in wipe-outs. I’ve tried different types of special surfer’s earplugs and swimming ear plugs. I’ve lost almost all of them in the water.
Finally, after my 5th (and final) ear infection in Sumbawa, I met an Australian surfer girl who gave me a strip of her ‘earplugs’; Blu-Tack. And that’s the one that stuck with me.
Blu-Tack is used to stick posters on the wall. It’s an office accessory. So, no it’s not an earplug. But you can make it into one. You can mold it, shape it, tear it apart, and put it back together. It’s incredibly cheap ($2 for a big strip which lasts at least 6 months, surfing every day).
It sticks to anything. Including your skin. I’ve never lost it, and you can use it as many times as you want. It blocks your ear canal almost completely so no water can go inside. If you do want to be able to hear, you just re-shape the stuff in your ear so you create a little space for the sound to come through.
It’s recommended by the same 2 medical specialists and I haven’t experienced any negative consequences from using Blu-Tack so far. For some reason lots of Australian surfers use it, and I honestly don’t understand anymore why some people still spend a fortune on ‘professional’ earplugs.
2. Disinfect your ears with rubbing alcohol and white vinegar
Again, recommended by the 2 doctors, using a couple of drops of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar after every surf session will keep those ear infections at bay:
The condition can be partially prevented by keeping the ears dry by using earplugs. If your ears do get wet, a couple of drops of a mixture of isopropyl alcohol and white vinegar (50%: 50%; 1:1) can be instilled into the ear. The volatility of the alcohol dries the ear and causes bacterial death and the acidic vinegar inhibits bacterial and fungal growth. Ensure that you can feel the drops reach deep into the canal.
I use an old pipette dropper bottle which I fill up with 50% rubbing alcohol and 50% white vinegar. This mix works better than any other drops (including antibiotic drops) I’ve used before.
3. Use a hair dryer to dry the ears
When the 5th ear infection finally subsided, I recommenced surfing. After each surf session, I poured the alcohol/white vinegar mix in my ears, and I dried out my ears even further by using a hairdryer.
An infection-free year later, I’ve stopped using the hairdryer and only use it when I feel there’s more water in my ear than usual. But if you are suffering from an infection right now, (and stubbornly continue surfing); get your hair dryer (or buy one) and blow those ears dry.
4. Put a couple of drops of olive oil in your ear before surfing
From the same article:
It is also recommended to instill a couple of drops of mineral oil / olive oil into your ear before you go surfing. The oil will form a protective layer over the sensitive skin, protecting it from dirty water.
I’ve stopped doing this now. I found it messes up the stickiness of my Blu-Tack. Again, if you are suffering from irritated skin in your outer ear canal, you might want to give this one a go.
Hope this helps to keep your ears healthy! Happy surfing!
Get your own Blu Tack here:
*The Surfer’s Ear – by Bart Willems and Christo Oosthuizen