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Listen Up, Surfers

Cold water surfing can damage your hearing

FRIDAY, Sept. 21, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- It may not be the excitement or the noise from crashing waves that has surfers shouting. It may be that they just can't hear so well.

Nearly 40 percent of surfers have a condition known as external auditory exostosis, or "surfer's ear," says a new study presented at the American Academy of Otolaryngology annual meeting last week. Surfer's ear basically is a build up of bone in the ear canal caused by repeated exposure to cold water.

Any cold water activity can cause surfer's ear, so if you swim or dive into cold water, you're at risk, as well.

"Surfing or cold water swimming is the leading cause of this type of exostosis, and it can basically close the ear canal." says Dr. J. Thomas Roland Jr., director of otology/neurotology at New York University Medical Center in New York City. Roland was not part of the study.

While doctors have long suspected that cold water causes more cases of surfer's ear than warm water, no studies had been done to prove it. So, Dr. David Kroon and his colleagues at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, set out to see if there really is a link.

They interviewed more than 200 surfers at an East coast surfing championship. The surfers, (91 percent male), came from many areas and included those who surfed in both cold and warm waters. They ranged in age from 12 to 60, with an average age of 17, says Kroon. Many knew that surfer's ear was a risk for them, says Kroon.

Cold water surfers "were six times more likely to have exostosis than those who surfed in predominantly warm water," says Kroon. Those who said they were willing to surf in water with a temperature of 60°F or less were even more at risk for surfer's ear.

And, the more time surfers spent in the water, the more likely they were to develop the problem. Every year spent surfing increased the risk of developing surfer's ear by 12 percent, says Kroon.

The problem develops because the ear is the only place in the body where skin is right on top of bone. Because there is no insulation between the skin and bone, cold water stimulates bone growth, says Roland. As surfer's ear progresses, ear infections can become common and hearing loss can occur. Hearing ability would be similar for someone who stuck their fingers in their ears, says Kroon.

Surgery can correct severe cases, but it takes four to six weeks to recover, and surfers would have to stay out of the water for that time.

Many doctors recommend decreasing surfing time to prevent surfer's ear, but Kroon says that's not an option for most surfers. "Surfing is a way of life, not a hobby," says Kroon.

He says wearing ear plugs or a hooded wet suit may help prevent the disorder, but he cautions there is no proof that either can prevent or slow the progression of the bony growth.

What To Do

For more information on surfer's ear, go to the Atlantic Coast Ear Specialist's Web page or to the surfing site, SheShreds.com.

Or you could try to avoid the problem altogether by surfing only in the tropics. Here's some information on surfing in Hawaii.

SOURCES: Interviews with David Kroon, M.D., otolaryngology resident, Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, Va.; J. Thomas Roland Jr., M.D., director, otology/neurotology, New York University Medical Center, New York, N.Y,; abstract, Sept. 11, 2001, presentation, American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Annual Meeting
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