Scuba diving causes several ear problems. There are two main reasons for this; water in the ear canals and the effects of pressure on the eardrum. Water causes swimmers' ear which is infection of the outer ear and ear canal. It is caused by the water dissolving the cerumen (ear wax) and softening the skin. This allows bacteria such Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa to penetrate and cause infection. Otitis externa, also known as swimmers' ear causes itching, redness, soreness and discharge. It may spread past the eardrum to cause middle ear infection.
A change in pressure occurs during ascent and descent when scuba diving. This can cause a pressure gradient across the eardrum if the diver is unable to equalise the pressure due to nasal blockage. Equalisation occurs when you 'pop' your ears which is the sound of the Eustachian tubes opening. If the pressure is not equalised then a perforated eardrum may occur; a disaster for a keen diver as it means time out of the the water. More information on ear injuries and infections is available on the ZenPlugs Blog.
Ear infections from scuba diving can be prevented by wearing a good pair of scuba ear plugs such as those available from us. Ear plugs should only be worn in the shallows; wearing them at depth could cause more problems than they solve. They create a trapped zone of air between the plugs and the drums. These cannot be equalised with the surrounding pressure so can cause eardrum rupture. ZenPlugs are molded to your ears, are waterproof and antibacterial so help prevent ear infections. They can also be connected on a cord and tied to the zipper on your wetsuit so you don't lose them. Prevention is better than cure!
Dr Toby Bateson