Being on a dive trip is quite a demanding time for your ears. Flights, hotels, changing temperatures, air-conditioning, wind, water and, of course, the dives themselves. You may be on vacation, but your ears aren’t!
How can you take care of your ears after the dive to help them stay in good condition so that you don’t miss any of the scuba diving action?
Arriving back on the deck of the dive boat, we all have our own routine: checking your buddies are ok, de-kitting and stowing your gear, chatting about what you’ve seen, where you’ve been, what you enjoyed or struggled with. You may be speaking with the dive crew about when the next dive is, or getting feedback on how you can have a better dive next time. You may be thanking the guide or crew for your experience. Or you may just be hopping around from one foot to the other – in a queue desperately waiting to get into the bathroom! It’s easy to be distracted but spare a thought for your ears. When you’re done and your suit has been hung up, the following steps will help you keep healthy ears.
Clean Your Ears
A little earwax is ok and can help to protect your ears. Too much can create a kind of ‘plug’ between itself and the eardrum. That pocket holding air that will expand and contract with pressure on dives, leading to potential injury. Excessive earwax can also stop ears draining properly.
In addition, warm, salty tropical waters can be a great breeding ground for bacteria and infection if left to fester. So, don’t leave the salt water to dry and crystalize in your ears for extended periods after diving. Initially, flush your ears with fresh water and do not use a cotton swab, cotton bud or Q-Tip to clean your ears (or anything else!); it’s easy to push wax, salt and dirt even further into your ears or, even worse, leave the cotton bud stuck in your ear or damage your very sensitive eardrum.
In an ideal world, use a bulb syringe to flush your ears. Doctors have recommended a solution of warm soapy, fresh water with hydrogen-peroxide in solution. This, of course, is not always possible if you’re on a dive boat somewhere more far-flung, unless you’ve brought supplies with you. Although, some liveaboard vessels may have rudimentary supplies in their first aid kit.
If you’ve finished diving for the day, it can be useful to rinse the ear canal with a mixture of half white vinegar, half rubbing alcohol/surgical spirit. This help in two ways. Firstly, it cleanses and dries the ear canal. Secondly, it changes the pH balance, protecting it, and making it less prone to infection from bacteria you may have picked up in the water. The same thing can be done to treat insect infections that can occur in a tropical environment where insects can enter the ear canal and cause irritation.
Keep the ears dry
When you’re out of the water, try to keep your ears warm and dry. Even in warmer environments, the wind whistling over a dive deck can play havoc with damp, sensitive ears. Make sure your ears are dry and – especially in a colder environment – protect them with a hat or hoodie. If you’re struggling to get your ears dry and one is available in your room or cabin, you can use a hairdryer to dry your ears after diving too, However, be mindful that the temperature is not too great and you burn your ear!
If you’re diving from a luxury hotel or liveaboard vessel in a tropical environment, it’s very tempting to rest on surface intervals or overnight with the AC on pumping out cooling air. The heat at some dive destinations can be oppressive if you’re not acclimatized. However, AC can be a home to pollutants that can make you sick and cause problems equalizing on dives. Mold, dust and any air-borne viruses from previous guests circulate the room or cabin with the air-conditioning on. Want to have healthy ears and sinuses? Avoid the AC where possible.
Drops are not the cure
The standard ear-drops available over the counter are the help prevent ‘Swimmer’s Ear’ (Otitis Externa) in those susceptible, not cure problems after the event. By all means, if you usually suffer from swimmer’s ear, add ear-drops pre-dive for protection as directed on the individual ear drops. However, if you’re suffering from pain in your ears after a dive – or a feeling of water being trapped in your ears – it’s more than likely the symptom of some damage you’ve sustained on the dive and means the sensible option is to sit out subsequent dives and likely be evaluated by a doctor.
A potential cause of serious pain in the ears could be a perforated eardrum which can take weeks to heal – and certainly should rule you out of diving until sufficiently healed; the hole allowing seawater beyond the outer ear when diving and may cause serious infections. Adding ear drops to the equation as a treatment is simply adding alcohol to an open wound and – while they may not make matters any worse – they are unlikely to help.
Your ears are a valuable asset and should be cared for accordingly. Equalize early and often on dives. And, after the diving is completed, make looking after your ears part of your normal post-dive ritual. If you have any doubts about the health of your ears, see a medical professional and take their advice as opposed to causing further damage.
Look after your ears and your ears will look after you.