Sea kayakers don't need to worry about 'Surfer's Ear' - do they?
What is 'surfers ear?'
Surfers ear is a well known condition, funnily enough mostly reported by surfers. The condition is caused by cold air and water circulating inside the ear canal, creating a chill factor. The body responds to this by circulating warming blood, which can unfortunately stimulate the growth of extra boney material in the ear canal itself, a process called exostosis (thought to be a protective response). Whilst harmless in itself, the problem with these boney lumps is that they can start to close the ear canal, causing more cold water to get stuck - exacerbating the problem. Prolonged exposure to cold water can cause significant recurrent ear infections, trapped water and eventually lead to hearing loss. For severe cases, surgery is required to drill, or chisel out the ear canal....ouch. Whilst the condition can vary between people, it theoretically affects everyone who is exposed over a long period of time.
Should sea kayakers be worried?
Well, sea kayakers are often out on the sea in cold and wet conditions, often for a lot longer than surfers. But, we don't regularly put our head underwater...unless we are practising rolls and rescues. Some sea kayakers are also open water swimmers or indeed surfers, and we should think about the totality of our exposure. I do know of dedicated sea kayakers who have had 30% hearing loss due to exostosis, it is a real risk.
What can be done?
If you get recurrent ear infections, feel that water is getting trapped or think that you may have hearting loss, you should visit your GP. Minor treatments with ear drops can help, as can antibiotics. Severe cases may require surgery though.
Prevention is better than the cure!
I do not think that we need to wear ear protection whilst kayaking generally. Indeed I have kayaked for years and not had a problem. I do, however, think that we should be cleverer when it comes to rolls and rescues and wet sessions generally. The condition is thought to become a significant risk when the water is below 19 degrees centigrade...the sea in the UK is never that warm, so there is a risk throughout the year.
Simple, well fitting ear plugs of the type used mostly by surfers are the easy, preventative solution. Pop them in before wet practise and you will not have a problem.
I have a few sets, and particularly like the ones on the right by ProPlug as they have a neat little box and a cord so that I can hang them around my neck and not lose them!
Tell other paddlers about surfers ear, or shall we call it 'cold water ear,' you might just save them from the drill.
In addition to being an Advanced Performance Sea Coach and Leader, the author is a WEMSI Emergency Medical Technician and REC Advanced Outdoor 1st Aid Instructor and regularly teaches dedicated sea safety, rescue and survival courses for sea kayakers.