Do Scuba Divers Wear Ear Plugs?

Scuba diving is a sport enjoyed by millions around the world. Colorful ocean life and azure waters draw in many, but as those of us who have dived before can attest, it can also be hard on the ears. What do scuba divers do to protect their ears?

Scuba divers do not wear ear plugs while diving. It can even be unsafe for divers to wear ear plugs. Ear plugs will prevent the diver from being able to equalize their ear pressure, which is done to prevent ear pain and injuries.

There are some situations in which divers would wear ear plugs and we’ll tell you about those, as well as outline some ideas to avoid ear pain when you’re heading to the ocean depths. Read the rest to understand how to protect your ears while diving.

The Problem with Wearing Ear Plugs

Scuba is an acronym for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, which is the equipment that allows someone to breathe underwater. Ear plugs are not a part of this equipment. Normal ear plugs create an air space between the eardrum and ear plug that can’t be equalized when diving. This makes them unsafe for divers. 

The main problem with wearing ear plugs while diving is the risk of barotrauma. Barotrauma is also called decompression sickness. It can develop quickly and be very bad. It’s caused by increased air or water pressure. 

Barotrauma in scuba diving is when a pressure change from descending into the water creates a vacuum in the middle ear that pulls the eardrum forward. This can cause:

  • Ear pain
  • Muffled sounds
  • Stuffy ears
  • The need to “pop” your ears

Severe barotrauma can include:

  • Clear fluid filling middle ear
  • Hearing difficulty
  • Extreme pain
  • Dizziness

In extreme cases of barotrauma, the eardrum can rupture, causing bleeding or leaking of fluid from the ear. This can result in a lot of pain and permanent hearing loss. It can also create a dizzy sensation called vertigo. It may even require surgery to drain.

If you suspect barotrauma, consult your doctor immediately. If you have had barotrauma, use caution when returning to diving. A small scar is left on the tympanic membrane after barotrauma and forceful clearing could cause repeated ear problems. If you do choose to jump back into diving, follow these steps:

  • Descend slowly
  • Clear often
  • Stop if in pain
  • Ascend slightly and clear again
  • Abort the dive if you can’t equalize

I have experienced this once. I had pain on descent, so ascended 10 feet and equalized. Resumed descent and felt pain followed by a “pop” and no more pain. Finished the dive since it didn’t hurt. Surfaced and my buddy noticed a nosebleed. It was our first dive of a week-long trip, so my diving was over for the week.

As I am a doctor, I knew I had time to wait to get it checked out. When we got home, I saw an ENT doctor a few days later. My doc said draining the blood or just waiting both carried a 50/50 possibility of hearing loss, so we went with waiting. About 3-4 weeks later, I had full hearing back.

Excellent demonstration of what happens during a dive

Better Ways to Protect Your Ears

There are much better ways to protect your ears while scuba diving. Your goal is to equalize your ears while you descend. To do that, try these tactics:

  • Pinch your nose closed
  • Swallow
  • Blow gently against your pinched nose
  • Tense the soft palate of your mouth and your throat muscles and push your jaw forward
  • Close your nostrils and the back of your throat and then make the sound of the letter “K”
  • Start a yawn while tensing the muscles of your soft palate and your throat
  • Never dive when you have a cold

Continuously try these tips while you descend. I’ve found equalizing on the surface clears my ears before starting descent. Do NOT descend if you can’t equalize. Just ascend slightly and try again. If your ears won’t clear, do not dive. 

Be slow and sure when diving. Follow these tips to further protect your ears:

  • Begin early – Try the tips above to equalize your ears even before you dive. You can try chewing gum to help hear the “pop” you need to let you know your ears have cleared
  • Equalize at the surface of the water before you begin to dive
  • Descend with your feet down in the water instead of head down
  • Extend your neck by looking up – this will help open the eustachian tubes in your ears
  • Equalize even if you don’t feel pain or pressure
  • Control your descent rate – don’t descend too quickly
  • Keep your mask clear – water can irritate your mucus membranes, making it more likely your ears will clog
  • Stop immediately if it hurts

Some water must enter your ear in order for your eardrums to equalize. 

Alternatives to Normal Ear Plugs

Some manufacturers promote the vented ear plug, which has a hole for venting between the water and the ear canal. The holes in the ear plug usually have a valve for pressurization without letting water into the ear canal. 

These plugs are normally made of polymer and are very soft, with a small hole running through them. They form a tight seal in the ear. Manufacturers claim that these plugs not only help in equalizing the ears without letting water into the ear canal but also say that the plugs help prevent:

  • Outer and inner ear infection
  • Vertigo
  • Thermal reaction

It is important to note that there is very little scientific data to back up these claims. In fact, if the vent happens to get clogged and you go diving, it could create a situation where you could develop barotrauma. 

These devices are primarily made to keep large debris, such as sand, and water from continually flushing in and out of your ear canal. 

Scuba Diving Do’s and Don’ts

Scuba diving is a challenging and extreme sport. Beyond ear plugs, what are other basic rules in scuba diving? Here are a few we gathered for you:

Scuba Diving Do’s

  • Always scuba dive with a buddy
  • Stay in visual contact with another person
  • Become scuba certified
  • Be in good physical condition
  • Have a third person in your group that stays on the surface
  • Have a check list that includes how to check equipment and everything you need to know about diving
  • Breathe continuously
  • Make a safety stop

Scuba Diving Don’ts

  • Don’t drink and dive
  • Don’t hold your breath
  • Don’t dive alone and always tell someone when you will be back
  • Don’t eat a big meal before diving
  • Don’t dive if you’re not comfortable with the situation
  • Don’t dive with broken or faulty equipment

A safety stop is one in which you pause in your ascension out of the water. You don’t want to rise too quickly, as it could cause decompression sickness. 

As you descend in the water, the pressure on your lungs increases and lung volume decreases. As you ascend, the opposite happens. Pressure drops and the lungs expand. If you stop breathing or hold your breath, it can cause over expansion of the lungs. That could lead to serious injuries, such as:

  • Subcutaneous emphysema – Air pockets are formed near the collarbone and the neck
  • Pneumothorax – The lining of the lungs, the pleura, ruptures from pressure.. This is one form of collapse. It sometimes resolves over time, but severe cases require a tube to be insert to re-expand the lung until the puncture heals.
  • Arterial Gas Embolism – Air diffuses into the blood and makes its way up to the brain, forming an air bubble which cuts off oxygen supply to vital body tissues
  • Mediastinal Emphysema – Air is trapped in cavities surrounding the heart muscles, which stop functioning properly

Scuba diving can be dangerous but is a fun sport as long as you follow the simple safety rules above. 

Some Final Tips

Scuba diving is an attractive sport because of the mysteries and beauties of the seas. The oceans are still under explored and diving gives people a chance to see wonders they may never see anywhere else. But there are some tips that could help make your experience better:

  • Hire a good diving instructor – research before you go
  • The depth limit for diving is between 100 and 133 feet – any deeper will require special training
  • Check out artificial reefs, like sunken ships
  • Consider diving with sharks, encased in a shark cage
  • Don’t be tempted into buying diving gear and jumping in the water without proper training

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Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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