(6 minute read)
The exhilaration as the cold water embraces you. The giddy liberation of weightlessness. The elation as you emerge, skin tingling. Open water swimming is a tonic for the soul. But your ears? Not so suited to icy dips, it turns out. From blockages and infections to ‘Surfer’s Ear’, the combination of water and wind can cause issues. Audiologist Vincent Howard shares his top tips to protect your ears when swimming – whether here in Ullswater or further afield.
So many things we do in life negatively affect our ear health, which is rarely seen as equal to our eyes or teeth. And most of the time, water is the culprit.
Submerging the head and ears in water – be it in the bath, shower, swimming pool, sea or in a lake or river – floods the external auditory canal. By way of protection, the body reacts by turning wax production levels up to full capacity.
Human wax, which is actually an oily substance called cerumen, is healthy in small quantities. However, too much of it can cause partial hearing loss, pain, tinnitus, dizzy spells and infections. And if wax is already present upon submersion, then it will absorb it and expand with the water. Alternatively, the water gets stuck behind a clump of wax beyond the second bend of your ear canal resulting in temporary hearing loss – and, unfortunately, whilst you can blow your nose, you can’t blow your ears!
The barrier method is the most effective way to protect your ears from water – and from noise too.
Repeated exposure to cold air or water is likely to cause the ear to start to close up. The term is ‘Exostosis’ or ‘Surfer’s Ear’. In the bony portion of the canal, small lumps begin to grow as a defence against the water or cold air in the ears.
Although sailors and cyclists also get it, the phenomenon is most common amongst surfers – hence the name. The common ingredients are wind and water – water in the ear canals and wind blowing past. This causes a refrigeration effect within the ear canal and the body’s response is to pump oxygenated blood into the canal. It’s this oxygenated blood that causes the bony structure around the ear canal to thicken and grow, which will start to constrict and eventually close up the canal. The process takes a while, but the more time you spend in the water the quicker it will happen.
The only way to protect yourself is to block the ear, preferably with custom-made swim plugs – because ear canals truly come in so many different shapes and sizes.
Traditionally, custom-made swim plugs were solid. A solid plug works a treat to block the water but isolates the wearer from their surroundings often resulting in the removal of the plug to hear something or listen to someone. The removal of the plug in such circumstances immediately defeats the object of wearing it in the first place.
However, with the latest innovation from Snugs, there’s now an option to impregnate a filter that allows sound waves (but not water) to penetrate the ear canal. Hence the name: the awareness filter. This means that you get full protection from the water – and therefore from exostosis – while also being able to enjoy your outdoor experience to the full.
Mr Vincent Howard
Co-Founder and Director of Audiology
(Love your ears)
For professional windsurfer Sarah Jackson, Snugs Aqua custom-fit earplugs have proved a life-saver.
“I’ve had problems with my ears since being a small child,” says Sarah, “so I’ve always had check-ups with the ENT consultant.”
While competing at an elite level in any sport has its hazards, being buffeted by cold winds and water for hours on end also comes with a specific risk. “Around five years ago, my consultant told me that if I didn’t start wearing earplugs straight away, I would be facing huge issues and surgery in the future,” says Sarah. “I tried various cheap solutions, but the plugs were so small, I inevitably kept losing them and not wearing them.”
In Sarah’s early 2020 ENT review, the situation had deteriorated. “I was told I had around six months before they needed to operate to clean up my ear canals,” she says.
“Luckily this is when I came across Snugs. Not only are they custom fit so no wind and water can get in at all, but they also come on a piece of cord which allows me to tie them onto things. So far, I’ve never lost them and 18 months later, I’m still surgery-free!”
Open water and night swimming
Swimming in the lake is a big part of our experience at Another Place. Right on the Ullswater lakeshore our hotel and its private jetty creates the ideal location to venture into the lake.
Whether swimming or just floating, day or night, our guided swims led by open water swimming expert Colin Hill, are suitable for all. Dip your toe in an introduction to open water swimming or go for the full cross-lake swim. Hone your technique with the endless pool, or take to Ullswater at night for a full moon or stargazing swim.
Colin’s cold water swimming lessons run throughout the year.