Dive trips can be quite demanding for your ears. Flights, hotels, changing temperatures, air-conditioning, wind, water and, of course, the dives themselves all affect your ear health. And, as we all know, healthy ears are essential for successful equalization. What’s the best regimen of post-dive care for your ears to ensure that they’re up to the task? Heed the following tips to help keep your ears healthy year-round.
Clean your ears
A little earwax is okay. It can help protect your ears, but too much can create a kind of plug between the outer part of the ear and the eardrum. That pocket holds air that will expand and contract with pressure on dives, leading to potential injury. Excessive earwax can also keep your ears from draining properly.
In addition, warm, salty waters can be a great breeding ground for bacteria and infection. So, don’t let the saltwater 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 sensitive eardrum.
Ideally, you’ll use a bulb syringe to flush your ears. Doctors recommend 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. Some liveaboard vessels will have rudimentary supplies in their first-aid kit, and some will have flushing solution available on the dive deck.
If you’ve finished diving for the day, rinse the ear canal with a mixture of half white vinegar and half rubbing alcohol/surgical spirit. This help in two ways. First, it cleanses and dries the ear canal. Second, it changes the pH balance in your ear, protecting it and making it less prone to infection from bacteria you may have picked up in the water. Do the same 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. In colder environments, protect your ears with a hat or hoodie. If you’re struggling to dry your ears and one is available in your room or cabin, use a hairdryer to dry them after diving. Just be careful not to get overzealous and burn them.
Beware of air-conditioning
If you’re diving from a luxury hotel or liveaboard vessel in a tropical environment, it’s tempting to rest on surface intervals and spend your overnight hours with the AC on pumping out cooling air. The heat at some dive destinations can be oppressive if you’re not acclimatized. However, an air conditioner can hold pollutants that can make you sick and cause problems equalizing on dives. Mold, dust and any airborne viruses from previous guests circulate in the room or cabin with the air-conditioning on, and the temperature change from hot and humid to chilly air can wreak havoc on your health. Want to have healthy ears and sinuses? Avoid the AC when possible.
Drops are not the cure
Standard over-the-counter ear drops are meant to help prevent swimmer’s ear (otitis externa), not cure problems once they arise. By all means, if you usually suffer from swimmer’s ear, add ear drops pre-dive for protection as directed on the packaging. However, if you suffer from pain in your ears after a dive, or feel water trapped in them, these are likely the symptoms of some damage you’ve sustained on the dive. The sensible option is to sit out subsequent dives and seek a doctor’s evaluation.
A potential cause of serious ear pain is a perforated eardrum, which can take weeks to heal. If this happens to you, you must forgo diving until you’re sufficiently healed. The perforation in your eardrum will allow seawater beyond the outer ear when diving, and may cause serious infections. Adding ear drops to the equation as a treatment is like adding alcohol to an open wound. While it may not make matters any worse, it is unlikely to help.
Healthy ears are absolutely essential when diving, and you must care for them accordingly. Equalize early and often on dives. Between dives and after your dive day is done, make it a priority to keep them dry and free of saltwater with a vinegar/alcohol mix. If you doubt 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.