What Is a Ruptured Eardrum? (Eardrum Perforation)

written by Becki Andrus

It can happen suddenly: if your eardrum ruptures, then you might notice an immediate change in your ear. While many people experience symptoms related to a ruptured eardrum, there are often situations where this condition occurs with no symptoms at all.

What is a Ruptured Eardrum?

A ruptured eardrum, also known as a tympanic membrane perforation or a perforated eardrum, happens when there is a tear in the membrane located between the inner and outer ear.

This membrane is an essential part of your hearing. Sound waves enter the ear canal and vibrate through the membrane. Then these vibrations move inward to the bones in the middle ear. If the eardrum is damaged, then you could experience hearing loss.

How Painful is a Ruptured Eardrum?

When the eardrum ruptures, you might feel a sudden pain in the ear. Or, sometimes, people experience this condition as an earache that goes away in a moment.

In most cases, pain is the most notable symptom that a patient has experienced an eardrum rupture. The pain varies in intensity. Some people find that the pain is steady, while other patients have varying pain symptoms depending on their activities.

When the pain starts to go away, then it’s common for the ear to drain. You might experience blood, clear liquid, or pus draining from the affected ear. This draining is most common when an infection causes a ruptured eardrum.

How long will a ruptured eardrum leak? Most of the time, a ruptured eardrum will heal in a few weeks. But it could take as long as a month or two for the ear to heal completely. Your exposure to additional trauma or water during the healing period can affect the recovery time.

Causes of an Eardrum Perforation

The specific cause of a ruptured eardrum varies from person to person. When you talk to an ENT, the doctor will help you identify the underlying causes to improve treatment and help you recover from this condition. Common causes include:

  • Infection: An ear infection causes a buildup of fluid in the ear, which can cause the membrane to rupture or break. This is one of the most common causes of ruptured eardrums among children.
  • Change in Pressure: If the environmental pressure is significantly different from pressure within the ear, it can cause a perforation of the eardrum. “Barotrauma” is the term used for this type of pressure change. It can occur when flying in an airplane, scuba diving, or driving at high altitudes.
  • Trauma or Injury: One potential cause of an eardrum rupture is an injury that occurs to the ear. For example, this condition can happen if you are hit in the head or ear, have an injury while participating in a sports activity, or in a car accident. Trauma is also common when objects are inserted too far into the ear.

Recommended Treatments for a Perforated Eardrum

Most of the time, this condition will heal in a few weeks without treatment. During the healing time, you can use over-the-counter pain medication to manage your discomfort if needed. Also, it’s best to follow the recommendations from an experienced ENT for supporting healing and minimizing the risk of complications:

  • Don’t Use Eardrops: If the eardrum is ruptured, then you shouldn’t put over-the-counter eardrops in the ear. Some of these products can cause problems in the middle ear, affecting the cochlea.
  • Keep the Ears Dry: Water in the ear canal can slow down the healing process. Be careful to avoid water exposure whenever possible to prevent infection during this time. For example, you might use waterproof earplugs while enjoying water activities or taking a shower.
  • Don’t Clean Your Ear: Don’t insert cotton swabs or other items to clean the inside of the ear canal. It’s best to let the eardrum heal entirely before cleaning the ear.
  • Be Careful Blowing Your Nose: When you blow your nose, it can put unnecessary pressure on the ear. If you need to blow your nose, be gentle to avoid the pressure that could affect the ear canal.

Should I Go to the ER for a Ruptured Eardrum?

If the symptoms are severe, you might go to an ER for immediate treatment and pain relief. Most of the time, emergency services are unnecessary. Instead, it’s better to visit a local ENT for diagnosis and treatment.

In many situations, a ruptured eardrum will close on its own. But there are times when surgery is required because of the presence of larger tears or damage.

For example, ear surgery can be done to apply a tissue patch that helps to cover the hole and promote healing. This treatment might be recommended if the eardrum perforation doesn’t heal within two months.

Can You Still Hear with a Ruptured Eardrum?

You might notice a reduction in hearing or a temporary hearing loss in the affected ear. While this hearing loss usually goes away when the ear heals, some people experience long-term effects and hearing loss.

Other associated symptoms often include a buzzing or ringing in the ears, tinnitus, or dizziness.

Prevention Tips: How to Avoid a Ruptured Eardrum

Sometimes, a ruptured eardrum is unavoidable. For example, if the perforation occurs during an ear infection, then you might not be able to do anything to avoid this issue. But many eardrum ruptures are completely avoidable with a few preventive steps:

  1. Call the Doctor for an Ear Infection: If you notice the early signs of an ear infection, call the doctor right away to treat the infection before the eardrum ruptures.
  2. Don’t Put Anything in the Ear: Don’t insert anything in the ear that shouldn’t be there. If there is something stuck in the ear canal, then it’s best to visit an ENT for professional removal.
  3. Timing to Fly on an Airplane: When you have a sinus infection or head cold, then you need to be proactive about managing ear pressure while on an airplane. Equalize ear pressure by chewing gum during takeoff and landing. Swallow or yawn often to rebalance the ears as needed. For babies, use a pacifier or feed them during pressure changes on airplanes.
  4. Use Caution Scuba Diving: Be proactive about taking lessons before scuba diving to learn the correct way to equalize the pressure in your ears while in the water. If you have a sinus infection, ear infection, or head cold, it’s best to wait for the symptoms to go away before scuba diving.

Call an ENT for Diagnosis and Treatment

It can be scary to experience a ruptured eardrum but rest assured that this condition usually clears up within a few weeks. If you are experiencing ongoing pain or other related symptoms, it’s wise to call an ENT for a consultation and exam.

Any time you have ear pain or hearing loss, it’s best to talk to a doctor about your condition. Early treatment can minimize the likelihood of long-term issues.

For patients living in Collin County or Dallas, you are invited to contact our experienced team at Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat. We have convenient offices in both Frisco and Plano, TX. Simply request an appointment using our online form, or call our office to learn about available services: (972) 596-4005.

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