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Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, you find out there’s something seriously scary out there. Filthy surf infections.

Untreated sewage, urban and agricultural run-off, even cold water and wind can cause some truly horrendous ailments.

Symptoms range from going a bit deaf to...death. So if you enjoy water sports, and want to avoid getting sick, read on...

[part title="Surfer's Ear"]

This is what could happen to you... Photo: flowfree.co.uk

Did you know, the ear is one of the few parts of our body that never stops growing?

Cold water surfers are prone to abnormal growth inside the ear. Hence the common name for this ear canal obstruction: Surfer’s Ear.

It’s like accelerated evolution. If the ear canal is bothered by cold wind and water, in as little as 5 years, your ear bone grows to protect itself.

Water, dirt and wax trapped by the bone growth leads to ear infections, pus and pain.


What are the symptoms?

• Going a bit deaf

• Regular ear infections, puss and pain

• Unable to get gunk out of ear, causing blockages


What can you do to treat it?

Bone growth is removed by drilling or chiselling, usually under general anaesthetic. Minimum time out of water is six weeks, but healing can take longer.


How can you prevent it?

Protect your ear canal from water and wind using ear plugs or a neoprene hood.

Local health services can help you get custom ear plugs made, and there’s a wide range of commercial ear plugs on the market.

If you’re really hard up, use Blu Tac.

[part title="Gastroenteritis"]

Sewage or contaminated water can cause ghastly gastroenteritis. Once swallowed, bacteria or viruses will swim into your stomach and wreak havoc, causing vomiting and diarrhoea.

These horrible events will normally occur 12 to 72 hours after exposure to the bacteria or viruses. Viral infections will often pass quickly, but bacterial infections can drag on up to 4 weeks.

Think it’s unlikely to affect you? Even at a beach that meets European water quality standards, a bather has a 1-in-7 chance of contracting gastroenteritis.

Gastroenteritis is highly infectious, so put yourself in quarantine until it passes if possible.


What are the symptoms?

• Scared to leave the toilet

• Profuse puking

• Assquake

• Gut ache


What can you do to treat it?

For most people, no treatment is required for gastroenteritis, but it’s important you drink plenty of water to replace lost fluids.

If dehydration becomes severe, seek advice from a medical professional.


How can you prevent it?

• Don’t go into the water if it’s abnormally brown

• Avoid surfing during or after heavy rainfall

• Learn where your local sewage outlets are, and avoid them.

• Some water companies and environmental organisations offer sewage alert services.

• If you surf in the UK, try the free Surfers Against Sewage alert app.


To prevent others catching your personal plague:

• Wash hands regularly with soap and water, especially after toilet and before food.

• Clean the toilet with disinfectant after every session, including the handle and seat.

• Don’t share towels, cutlery or utensils.

• If you’ve had no diarrhoea or vomiting for 48 hours, it’s safe to be social again.

[part title="Hepatitis A"]

hep a

hep a

Catching hepatitis A means your liver is in for a hard time (just check out the symptoms below).

Hepatitis A is found in sewage and is transmitted by the ‘faecal-oral route’. Translation: your mouth comes into contact with something that's been contaminated with hep A patient's poo.

It can survive for more than 90 days in the sea. Surfers are therefore three times more likely to get hepatitis A.

The good news is symptoms usually clear up within a couple of months, but it might take up to six months. In most cases, your liver will make a full recovery.


What are the symptoms?

• Lack of appetite

• Mild fever

• Aches and pains

• Feeling sick

• Being sick

• Diarrhoea

If your liver becomes infected:

• Skin and eyes turn yellow, known as jaundice

• Very dark urine and ghostly pale poo

• Itchy skin

• Painful liver

And in extreme cases:

• Liver failure (1% of hepatitis A cases)

• Death


What can you do to treat it?

The bad news is hepatitis A is incurable. You can of course:

• Use painkillers but avoid over use, as it may cause further damage your liver

• Use standard treatments to help reduce itching

• Use medication to help alleviate vomiting

• Rest your liver - so no alcohol and check medications for side effects to liver


How can you prevent it?

Hepatitis A vaccinations are available (I’ve had mine).

The vaccine provides cover for about a year, but if you have a booster vaccine 6-12 months after the first one, then cover lasts for at least twenty years.

[part title="Leptospirosis"]


Leptospirosis is passed to us through the urine of wild animals infected with the leptospira bacteria.

Infected animal urine can get washed into recreational and coastal waters after heavy rainfall. So all watersports junkies, both fresh and salty, are at risk.

You can pick up this potentially deadly disease when contaminated water comes into contact with your eyes, mouth, nose, or through open wounds.

The severe form of leptospirosis is known as Weil’s disease. In 2010 Olympic rowing champion Andy Holmes died of Weil’s disease. Apparently the bacteria entered his body through blisters on his hands.


What are the symptoms?

In 90% of cases:

• Fever

• Banging headache

• Chills

• Aching muscles

• Puking

• Coughing

• Sore eyes

However, in extreme cases the disease may spread to your liver, kidney, heart, brain and/or lungs. This may lead to:

• Jaundice

• Meningitis

• Encephalitis

• Fits

• Coughing up blood

• Death


What can you do to treat it?

Usually the effects of leptospirosis are mild and can be treated with antibiotics over the course of a week.

If you’re not better after seven days of treatment, contact a medical professional.

If you’re one of the really unlucky 10% who suffer severe leptospirosis, you’ll be rushed to hospital.


How can you prevent it?

Avoid fresh water rivers, lakes and coastal waters located near agricultural land, during and following heavy rainfall.

Cover any open wounds with a waterproof dressing before entering the water.

[part title="So, what should we take from all this?"]

Spots like Indonesia are already plagued with sewage. Photo: Zak Noyles Photographer

We need to do more about the sewage and pollution contaminating our recreational and coastal waters.

The less crap washed into our waters, the less likely we’ll catch a filthy infection. The infections listed above are just the tip of the iceberg.

So find a local environmental group and see what you can do to make our oceans a safer place to surf. Surfers Against Sewage is a great place to start for British surfers.

Oh, and if the water’s unusually brown - don’t go in.

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