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Trevaylor Rd, Falmouth, UK, TR11 2LH

Surfers Ear

What's that?
Surfer's ear is a condition of the ear canal where the bony lining under the skin develops a number of lumps (exostoses) that grow into the tube. This can eventually cause a partial or even complete blockage of the ear canal.

Normal ear drums  

   Cross section along ear canal                     Normal ear drums

Surfers Ear

     Cross section along ear canal with exostoses at inner end         Ear canal with multiple exostoses at far end obscuring view of ear drums

So what?
If the ear canal is narrowed water and debris can get trapped behind the narrowing causing a very painful infection which is difficult to treat. In very advanced cases it can narrow enough to cause deafness.

Then what?
Infections may require visits to the Ear Nose and Throat department at the hospital to have the ears cleaned out along with antibiotics.

Yes, but surely they can remove the blockage?
Well yes but... There is an operation where the surgeon digs a hole in the bone behind your ear and drills out the bony lumps. But this is a bit painful, carries the risk of complications and puts you out of the water for at least 2 months. And if you don't mend your ways it can come back again. Generally the operation is a bit of a last resort, although the surgeons like to do it before the canal is completely blocked. It's fearful reputation is perhaps not totally justified, and most complications and pain occur as a result of infection caused by premature return to the water. Nevertheless, "prevention is better than cure"

Is there anything I can do to stop it happening?
Surfer's ear is six times as common in cold water surfers than warm water surfers. The longer you surf the more likely you are to get it. It is thought that it is caused by cold water and air getting into the ears repeatedly over a long period of time.
So if you can keep your ears warm and dry when surfing there is a good chance it wont get nearly as bad. The usual way to do this is to wear earplugs but a hood in the winter will provide good protection too. A variation of this is the SurfMuff (as in ear muff)

What do you use as an earplug?
The ideal is something tailored to the ear that does not interfere too much with hearing and balance. Doc's Proplugs are designed to do this but your ears need measuring to get the correct size. However they really do work.

Silicone wax mouldable putty plugs are acceptable, but reduce hearing and impair balance. They are available at most chemists.

Maybe more convenient is Blutac which has the advantage of being a bit sticky and less likely to fall out. Blutac is claimed by some experienced users to be the best for a completely dry seal if used correctly.
It is important to fill the area of the ear as shown in the image, using the natural recesses to retain it.
 Blutac fitting in ear
It is not necessary to insert it deeply into the ear canal itself. However it does make the user much more deaf and can affect the sense of balance so is not an ideal solution.

The most hi-tec solution is a custom made plug taken from a impression of your ear. These are designed to preserve some hearing in use and have the potential to provide the optimum solution, at a price. Check out local supplier Surfplugs at

Is it the same as Swimmer's Ear?
No, Swimmer's Ear is an inflammation and infection of the ear canal caused by prolonged moisture and is commoner in the tropics, but is not caused by the bony growths.

Is there any good news?
Sort of. Many surfers have mild exostoses which cause no trouble. And if you protect yourself now you can stop it happening or getting worse.

Read More
Doc Proplugs 
Surfplug custom made plugs
More in depth description of the condition and the operation


Richard James. Last updated 12 May 2017