Can You Dive With Chronic Sinus and Ear Problems?

Diver Ascending

Q. One exercise that's required for scuba training is an emergency swimming ascent. I don't think that I'll be able to do that and here's why: My entire life, I've suffered with ear problems (infections as a kid and as an adult difficulty in equalizing during airline flights and driving in the mountains). It's not that I can't equalize, it's just that it takes a long time. My concern isn't really getting down; it's that if I have to make a continuous ascent, I won't be able to equalize. My buddy said that this is called a reverse block in diving lingo, and that I'd learn how to deal with it in training. I'm not so sure. Should I reconsider my decision to enroll in the class? Or, is there a way that I can opt out of this particular skill because of my condition?

A. You're absolutely right to be concerned. In diving, it's essential that your ears and sinuses be able to clear, as the lack of doing so can result in some pretty serious injuries. However, don't cancel your plans to become certified quite yet. First of all, I know and have trained many, many divers who have had lifelong “sinus problems” — myself included. There are techniques and medications that can help most people who are at least able to equalize.

I actually encountered the problem that you describe with a student years ago. It was caused by a chronic condition exacerbated by numerous childhood ear infections. (Sound familiar?) The good news is that he eventually went on to become both certified and a very active diver, but not without some effort.

You cannot “opt out” of emergency ascent training, as it's required by the standards of all certification organizations. And as it is what's described as an “industry standard,” it can't be waived under any circumstance. That's really not an unreasonable requirement because every diver, regardless of his medical condition, is at risk of running out of air, and must be able to respond appropriately.

You might consider a proactive response, and go see your doctor even before your class starts. With your condition, you'll have to get a medical clearance, anyway. You might even consider going to an otolaryngologist with training in diving medicine. You can get a referral to a qualified physician in your area by contacting the Divers Alert Network.

Conditions like yours can be corrected, with either medication or surgery. And sometimes the problem resolves with just a bit of diving experience and practice equalizing under water. Still, it may turn out to be a problem that cannot be corrected, or one that you may not want to go to the trouble and expense of fixing. In that case, the answer is simple. If you can't equalize — either descending or ascending — due to some congenital problem, diving is not for you.

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2 Comments

  1. Since coming home on September from my third dive trip I have had head aches sinus pressure and earache have been on antibiotics nasal sprays and ear drops but still haven't cleared it thinking g about ent to check for any blockages in the nasal tubes

  2. Something which works for a friend of mine (who is known to spend half the dive at 15ft trying to equalize)... doing a flip. Don't know how it works, don't know why, it just seems to work for him.

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