You may have heard a friend or family member talking about it: they had an ear infection, or went on a flight, and the pressure ruptured their eardrum. A ruptured eardrum sounds scary, but what is it, and how is it treated?

The eardrum is the membrane that senses vibrating sound waves, and then transmits these vibrations to the inner ear. These are then converted into nerve impulses that move the sound from your ear to your brain. A ruptured eardrum is a tear in this membrane.

What causes a ruptured eardrum?

Ruptured eardrums have a number of causes. The most common one is ear infections. When your middle ear is infected, pressure builds and pushes against the eardrum. If the pressure gets too high, it can cause the eardrum to perforate.

CEENTA Otolaryngologist Sajeev Puri, MD

Another common cause is when the eardrum is poked with a foreign object, like a q-tip or other object used to clean earwax. They can also be caused when the pressure inside and outside the ear are not equal. For example, pressure changes can happen when scuba diving or when a plane ascends or descends. Head injuries or sudden loud noise can also rupture an eardrum. People should also be cautious around the pool.

”Now that summer is coming, injuries in the pool while playing and when diving can lead to eardrum ruptures,” CEENTA ENT doctor Sajeev Puri, MD, said. “It is important to have these evaluated as soon as possible to prevent infections and other problems.”

What signs should I look for?

Symptoms of ruptured eardrums vary. When caused by an ear infection, for example, you may actually notice the pain and pressure you felt from the infection improve after the rupture. You may also see pus or blood drain from the ear. Other people might not notice any symptoms at all, while others might complain of general discomfort. Some people will notice sudden increases or decreases in ear pain. They may notice a buzzing or hearing loss. They may also have ear infections or dizziness.

If you or your doctor suspects a ruptured eardrum, it is imperative to have this evaluated as soon as possible to prevent complications. Typically the physician will use an otoscope to inspect your ear. They may also test your hearing to determine if you have any hearing loss from the ruptured eardrum. Most of the time hearing loss is temporary.

How does my ear get better?

When the rupture is traumatic and small, in the vast majority of cases it will heal on its own in about three months. Your doctor may give you antibiotic drops or recommend over-the-counter painkillers for infections or pain, respectively. It is important not to use any drops that have alcohol, which can cause severe pain and loss of hearing, or medications that are known to cause hearing loss.

If the rupture is large or has been present for a long time, it may not heal and may require surgical intervention. In these cases your doctor will use either a paper patch or your own tissue to patch the hole in the eardrum. This is an outpatient procedure and is usually completed in a few hours.

It’s important to keep your ear dry while it heals. You shouldn’t swim, and you should wear a shower cap while showering.

Ruptured eardrums can be troubling, but knowing the signs and getting care right away can get your eardrums back to top condition in no time.

If you think you have a ruptured eardrum and would like to make an appointment with one of CEENTA’s Ear, Nose, and Throat physicians, call 704-295-3000.

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