Ear infections for surfers

For years I suffered from a never-ending series of ear infections which I accepted as an inevitable part of the surfing lifestyle. It seemed that always within a few days of arriving at some dream surf destination I’d start to get the tell-tale itch, followed by pain and then the same old drill: doctor visit, antibiotics and time out of the water. Otitis externa, also known as swimmer’s ear, is the result of the protective lipid layer of your ear canal being removed, resulting in inflammation. Spending hours in the salty, corrosive ocean is a perfect recipe for developing this condition.

My ears have had an interesting life. Both drums have been ruptured by solid slaps of oceanic fury and one was injected with gurgling, discoloured water from under a dubious Homeopath’s desk in a remote Indian village. Scary moments. My friend lost his hearing to an overenthusiastic third-world doctor and his plastic syringe.

Have you seen those creepy cross-section diagrams of the ear? Looks like an alien’s womb. There is some delicate equipment in there and surfing does not really give it due respect.


So, after being prescribed a particularly heavy dose of oral antibiotics (which did not work) on my latest trip to Bali I decided to experiment with my aural affliction. It’s almost as bad as having James Blunt’s “Goodbye My Lover” stuck in your head while trying to surf perfect waves.

My experimentation, undertaken with great devotion also for you, my readers, resulted in a simple, four step routine that has ensured almost three months of trouble-free ears. Even whilst surfing several times per day in murky tropical water, beside a river-mouth.

1. Don’t wash your ears

Your ear canal is a sensitive passage and doesn’t like moisture. It produces wax that self-regulates and protects the environment in there. You don’t need to wash inside, especially not with soap. This first step probably accounted for most of my problem. If you wash your face whilst showering it’s easy to get too enthusiastic in and around the ears. Removing ear wax and inflaming that sensitive tissue allows fungus and bacteria to flourish. Stop it.

2. Don’t put anything in there

Yeah, they are known as “ear buds” but they are not friends of your ear. They are little devil sticks that will clog passages and damage fragile skin – even if it feels freaking amazing. Don’t try to remove moisture with ear / cotton buds. Pinky fingers are also little devil sticks. Don’t touch.

3. After surfing, dry your ears

First gently towel the general ear area. Then add a few drops of a moisture removal solution to properly dry the ear canal out. There are loads of products on the market that will help get rid of this moisture. In Bali I found Santadex for a couple of dollars at the local pharmacy. In other countries you could look for Auro-Dri, Mack’s Dry-n-Clear Ear Drying Aid or Swim-Ear. The key is to use a solution that contains alcohol, potentially boric acid, vinegar and / or zinc sulfate. If you can handle the noise you could use a hairdryer instead.

4. Colloidal Silver

I am usually up for trying most things in a health food shop but colloidal silver sounded a bit new-agey, even to me. It’s not. It’s a powerful, natural antibiotic which apparently acts by disabling the enzyme that bacteria, viruses and fungi need for their oxygen metabolism. Widely used before the advent of modern antibiotics it seems silver is making a comeback. It worked for me when antibiotics didn’t. I simply sprayed a small amount into my ears after drying them out (Step 3) and at first the pain subsided, then the itch disappeared. Bear in mind I was surfing during this treatment.

Remember I am not a doctor. I am a guy who likes surfing (disco dancing, romantic walks) and found a way to avoid going to the doctor for the same old course of (often ineffectual) treatment options. Listen to your body. If it feels serious and you are in pain then definitely visit a doctor. If there is a discharge get help. If it squirts make a video! There is an infection called malignant external otitis which can develop if bacteria invade the bones inside the ear canal and spread to the base of the skull. This can cause facial paralysis.

I’ve seen a few guys in the line-up with that lately.