As all divers know, it is necessary to keep your ears in good shape. Any problem in them can seriously reduce your diving ability and therefore destroy (a part of) your dive trip. As I had my fair share of ear problems, seen lots and lots of divers with it and consulted many experts and doctors, I hope this information will help you in keeping your ears in shape during your next dive trip. Eliminating the risk completely is probably not possible since you bring them in such a very different environment than what they used to the rest of year. Having said that, even diving instructors are known to suffer ear problems. So it is about decreasing risk only, eliminating . . . doubtful.
The most common problem is an outer ear infection. Inner ear infections might follow but mostly it is an infection in the outside tube of your ear. A very specific balance is present there with a rather specific acidity and a bacteria population, living happily in that waxy environment. When this balance is disturbed and/or (different) bacteria get the change to dominate, the result is in an infection.
How is it caused?
Though there are slightly different explanations out there it is generally believed that when your ears are getting wet (so not just diving) the wax protection might dissolve and the skin in your ear tube is softening from being in water. If you then have even the slightest “micro” wound in your ear it might cause an infection. How could you get this wound in your ear? By using Q tips or sticking your finger in your ear for example. Especially staying with wet and salty ears in a windy place seems to increase the risk. Some believe the water vaporises, leaving behind micro salt crystals which are sharp and unclean and could easily cause these small wounds. In my experience this seems particularly true when the water contains lots of plankton. Often if someone gets an ear problem he or she is not the only one on that boat or in that dive-centre.
What do you feel?
For most people it starts with itching, but it can fast develop in more severe symptoms. Often the ear channel swells up and closes completely, making hearing hard and by then touching the ear lobe is even painful. In this stage the lymph knots in your neck are working overtime, are normally swollen and perhaps painful. If you continue to dive after the initial stage of ear infection, even the vibration of the bubbles passing your ear could cause pain. But . . . you shouldn’t even think about that as continuing would potentially even make it worse or switch to a more dangerous inner ear infection.
How to reduce the risk
Forget the Q tips
Many people use them, even though we all know it is not a good thing. Society made us probably so afraid for dirt that the thought of “stuff in your ears” is simply unbearable. Normally your wax is self regulatory and if you feel there is too much it is often as simple as turning your ear towards the warm shower and let the water slightly rinse it out. Very seldom people get so much wax that they don’t hear well, and even that itself might be just caused by using pushing with Q tips. The solution . . . again rinsing with hand warm water.
Keep your fingers away from your ears
During a dive your ear was in another environment, you come on the boat the water runs out (or stays a bit stuck in it) and we sense something strange there. Most people start putting their small finger in their ear and trying to eliminate the slight itch. The skin is soft, your fingers hard and even have a sticky nail on it . . . a micro wound is easily made, followed by trouble you would like to avoid.
Rinse your ears after every dive
Even the bluest sea water is not just pure water. For a start there is salt and as described above this could already get you in trouble with your own bacteria after the dive. So, carry a bottle of mineral water with you and rinse your ears after every dive. Put an ear up, hold the bottle close to your ear, fill it with water and turn your head to let it run out. No force, no pressure, just rinse each ear a few times. Doing so will remove most of the salt and plankton and as such reduces the risk.
Avoid showers on boats
Theoretically a shower with fresh water would be great, but only if the water is of good quality. Water on boat is stored in tanks and if these tanks are not cleaned well or the water is long stored there, who knows what you put in your sensitive ears. Try to avoid showers water as you simply have no control over the quality of it. There might be even more bacteria than in sea water and you thought you were cleaning your ears . . .
Try to dry them softly
The best would be if they were made dry immediately after the dive, but . . . without touching them. Not really doable, so best go for the compromise. After rinsing them keep the towel or tissue mainly at the outside and slightly shake your head with the ear downwards. What comes out, comes out, leave the rest. Do not stick something inside.
Cover your ears
After above steps the best thing to do is to cover your ears. A headband, cap or buff will do the trick as long as the complete ear tube is sheltered against the wind. Strangely enough it also seems to help to cover your ears if you even did not rinse and or dry them, though perhaps slightly less effective than going the whole way.
Home made prevention drops
Though for most people the above will do, sometimes the plankton, wind and your weak ears seem to be aligned in an attempt to spoil your dive-trip. You can by many different drops, but most effectively seems to be a 2 % solution of white vinegar. Professional divers have tested many different solution with hydrating substances, alcohol to vaporise the water fast and it seems that just 2% vinegar was best. Unfortunately to work properly they would have to be administered immediately after the dive and . . . the solution should stay at least 5 minutes in each ear. It is believed that the increase in acidity will kill the harmful bacteria and bring your ears to their proper PH level. Personally I have always two bottles with me on dive trips. One with just water that I use always, one with the vinegar solution that I only start using after a few dives when I feel the slightest of irritation. I saved some dives with this.
That is it, simple stuff that comes a long way if you follow it carefully. No rocket science but still to be consistent in these small things seems not to be too easy for most of us. You will not completely eliminate the problem, but believe me, you will reduce the risk of problems drastically.
Good luck with your ears!
Be safe, but ... dive!