Ruptured Eardrum Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Learn about why eardrums burst, what it feels like, and how a perforation is treated.

Your eardrum can burst instantly, leading to symptoms that are anything but comfortable. But while you might know that something doesn't feel right when that happens, you might not understand what's happening inside your body and what to do about it.

Here's what you should know about why eardrums rupture, what it feels like, and what steps you should take if it happens.

What Is a Ruptured Eardrum?

Also called a perforated eardrum, a ruptured eardrum is an opening or hole in the eardrum. Your eardrum is the thin, delicate membrane separating the outer and middle ear. Often, pressure, middle ear infection (otitis media), or an injury causes an eardrum to burst.

When the eardrum ruptures, it can increase the risk of an infection. Our eardrums act as a barrier that protects the middle ear, so a hole allows water and debris to reach the middle ear.

A ruptured eardrum may also cause some hearing loss, which is usually short-term. Because the eardrum acts like an amplifier, any hole in it "decreases its ability to take a sound and magnify it," Vijay Mukhija, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at ENT and Allergy Associates, told Health.

Causes of a Ruptured Eardrum

An ear infection is a common cause of a ruptured eardrum. Fluid or pus can build up behind the eardrum and eventually cause it to break open. Bacteria in the ear or a virus, such as an upper respiratory infection or sinus infection, raises your chances of developing an ear infection.

When doing activities such as flying on an airplane or scuba diving, changes in air pressure can lead to an even greater risk of a ruptured eardrum. However, those activities can also cause a rupture even when you don't have an infection.

Other causes of a ruptured eardrum include:

  • Putting a foreign object in your ears, such as a Q-tip or something sharp used to clean the ears
  • A loud noise
  • A powerful slap or other impact to the face

To prevent an eardrum rupture, avoid putting anything in your ear canal—including tools to clean your ear.

Ruptured Eardrum Symptoms

If you have an ear infection, you might not feel relief from pain after your eardrum ruptures. If you don't have an infection, your ear will most likely start hurting after it bursts.

Other symptoms of a ruptured eardrum include:

  • Discharge from the ear, which may be clear, bloody, or pus
  • A buzzing sound or another sound
  • Earache
  • Partial or total hearing loss
  • Dizziness, in severe cases

How Is a Ruptured Eardrum Diagnosed?

To determine whether you have a ruptured eardrum, a healthcare provider will use an otoscope to look inside your ear. The otoscope shines light into your ear, which allows the healthcare provider to see your ear canal and eardrum easily.

If pus or other liquid is blocking the healthcare provider's view of the eardrum, they may have to use suction to reduce the blockage. When they have a clear view, it should be easy to see a hole or tear in the eardrum. You may receive a hearing test, as well.

How To Treat a Ruptured Eardrum

Most ruptured eardrums heal on their own within two months. But you may want to take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication or put warm compresses on your ear to manage any discomfort.

If you visit a healthcare provider, they'll try to address any underlying problems. For instance, they may prescribe antibiotics if you have an ear infection or to prevent an infection. A healthcare provider will also clean out the ear canal, said Dr. Mukhija. 

While the pain may only last a few days, the hearing loss will persist until your eardrum fully heals. If it hasn't patched itself up in three months, a healthcare provider might be able to repair it with an in-office procedure. In most cases, a ruptured eardrum may require a surgical procedure in the operating room.

Activities To Avoid With a Ruptured Eardrum

If you have a ruptured eardrum, you want to avoid getting the inside of your ears wet so that you don't get an infection. So, that means avoiding swimming or putting your head underwater. Also, remember to place cotton balls in your ears while showering lightly.

While waiting for your eardrum to heal, avoiding sticking anything, like a Q-tip or sharp object, in your ears is especially important.

A Quick Review

If you have a ruptured eardrum, a hole or tear in the thin membrane separates the outer and inner ear. A ruptured eardrum often happens when there's pressure from fluid or pus from an infection or air pressure changes. 

While uncomfortable symptoms ranging from pain to hearing loss, they are often temporary. Most ruptured eardrums heal on their own within a couple of months.

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  1. National Library of Medicine. Ruptured eardrum.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ear infection.

  3. National Library of Medicine. Tympanic membrane perforations.

  4. National Library of Medicine. Otoscope examination.

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