Surfer's Ear / Exostosis

Exotosis, commonly known as surfer’s ear, is a condition that involves abnormal bone formation in the canal of the ear. Over time this obstruction can grow to block the canal and lead to hearing impairment.

It gets its name from the high number of surfers and swimmers that are affected by surfer’s ear. The cold water and windy conditions associated with these sports are thought to increase the likelihood of exostosis. It has also been observed that cold-water surfers are more likely to be affected than those that surf in warmer water.

Males are more likely to be affected, although it is speculated this is a result of the higher proportion of males that take part in sporting activities that predispose people to the condition.

image Credit: Shutterstock / User – ohrim

Causes and Prevention

The primary cause of surfer’s ear is cold and wet weather conditions. It takes a considerable amount of exposure time for individuals to notice symptoms. For this reason, most people affected present at around 30-40 years of age with a long history of outdoor, cold-water activities.

Where possible, it is better to prevent medical issues rather than treat them later on. Fortunately for people who surf or swim in cold water regularly, preventing surfer’s ear can be done with the use of a basic earplug to stop cold air and water from entering the ear canal. In addition, a swimming cap can be worn for extra protection and avoiding exposure during particular severe weather conditions is advised.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

In the early stages, people affected by surfer’s ear may notice that they tend to get water trapped inside their ear easily. As the blockage grows other symptoms may also occur including:

  • Increased frequency of ear infections
  • Hearing impairment in affected ears
  • Trapping of water inside the ear canal

Whilst exostosis can affect both ears it is more likely that one ear is considerably worse than the other. This can often be linked back to the cold conditions the individual experienced, such as wind coming from a particular direction for surfers.


If the condition is still in the early stages (e.g. water getting trapped inside easily but minimal infection and hearing impairment), people with surfer’s ear can prevent it from worsening with the use of protective earplugs. However, the condition will not improve of its own accord. Ear drops are also available to help unblock the ears when water becomes trapped inside and can be useful in the management on the condition.

When exostosis become more severe and causes regular problems for an individual, surgical removal of the bone growth is possible. This usually involves a procedure under general anesthetic during which the exostosis is removed and the ear canal widened.



Further Reading

  • All Ear Content
  • How Does the Ear Work?
  • Causes of Hearing Loss
  • Causes of Tinnitus
  • Earwax – Cerumen

Last Updated: Jun 26, 2019

Written by

Yolanda Smith

Yolanda graduated with a Bachelor of Pharmacy at the University of South Australia and has experience working in both Australia and Italy. She is passionate about how medicine, diet and lifestyle affect our health and enjoys helping people understand this. In her spare time she loves to explore the world and learn about new cultures and languages.

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