Surfer’s Ear is a name used to describe benign bony growth in one or both ear canals. It develops in conditions of chronic cold water and wind exposure to the ear canals. Thus, while called Surfer’s Ear, it can be seen in sailors or ocean water swimmers as well. The skin lining the ear canals is very thin and provides little insulation from the cold. For unknown reasons, the bone of the ear canal responds to the cold exposure by developing bumps, called exostoses, within the canal. There are typically three distinct growths that will grow toward each other in the middle of the ear canal. This is a slow process likely progressing over years. Over time, less and less of the ear drum will be visible beyond the bony growths.
In many cases this condition can be asymptomatic. As the obstruction increases over time, patients will start to develop water trapping deep in the ear canal. Sometimes this can lead to infections in which there will be pain and possibly pus draining from the ear. If a combination of water, earwax, and skin blocks the ear canal, patients may have trouble hearing from the ear.
The best way to address Surfer’s Ear is prevention. The most reliable prevention is through the use of ear plugs during water exposure. These can be purchased at your local surf or dive shop. If having difficulty with fitting, custom ear plugs can be made by taking molds of the shape of your ears. This can be done through our audiology department. Neoprene headbands can also be used to provide insulation to the ears. Even if Surfer’s Ear has already started to develop, it is better to prevent it from progressing to avoid symptoms and the potential need for surgery. If water trapping does occur, this can be addressed with over-the-counter alcohol based ear drops to help evaporate away moisture. You can make your own solution of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar mixed 50/50. Apply 3-4 drops into each ear after water exposure. The vinegar helps to acidify the ear canal and prevent infection while the alcohol helps to evaporate off the moisture. You can also use a hair dryer on a low heat setting about one foot away from the ear to help circulate air and promote drying of the ear canal.
If Surfer’s Ear is causing frequent symptoms or infections, it can be addressed surgically with a procedure called canalplasty. This is completed in the operating room under general anesthesia. In this surgery, we will make some incisions in the ear canal to lift away the skin so the underlying abnormal bone can then be drilled away. This can typically be accomplished by working through the ear canal with a microscope, though rarely may require a small incision behind the ear. After undergoing this surgery, it is important to use ear plugs in the future as the bony growth can recur if there is further cold exposure.