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Ruptured Ear Drums (Tympanic Membrane Perforations)
A ruptured eardrum (tympanic membrane perforation) is a hole or tear in the thin tissue that separates your ear canal from your middle ear (eardrum).
A ruptured eardrum can result in hearing loss and can make your middle ear vulnerable to infections. A ruptured eardrum usually heals within a few weeks without treatment. But sometimes it requires a patch or surgical repair to heal.
Signs and symptoms of a ruptured eardrum may include:
- Ear pain that may subside quickly
- Mucus-like, pus-filled or bloody drainage from your ear
- Hearing loss
- Ringing in your ear (tinnitus)
- Spinning sensation (vertigo)
- Nausea or vomiting that can result from vertigo
Causes of a ruptured (perforated) eardrum may include:
- Middle ear infection (otitis media). A middle ear infection often results in the accumulation of fluids in your middle ear. Pressure from these fluids can cause the eardrum to rupture.
- Barotrauma. Barotrauma is stress exerted on your eardrum when the air pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure in the environment are out of balance. If the pressure is severe, your eardrum can rupture. Barotrauma is most often caused by air pressure changes associated with air travel. Other events that can cause sudden changes in pressure — and possibly a ruptured eardrum — include scuba diving and a direct blow to the ear, such as the impact of an automobile air bag.
- Loud sounds or blasts (acoustic trauma). A loud sound or blast, as from an explosion or gunshot — essentially an overpowering sound wave — can rarely cause a tear in your eardrum.
- Foreign objects in your ear. Small objects, such as a cotton swab or hairpin, can puncture or tear the eardrum.
- Severe head trauma. Severe injury, such as a skull base fracture, may cause the dislocation of or damage to middle and inner ear structures, including your eardrum.
Follow these tips to avoid a ruptured (perforated) eardrum:
- Get treatment for middle ear infections. Be aware of the signs and symptoms of middle ear infection, including earache, fever, nasal congestion and reduced hearing. Children with middle ear infections often are fussy and may refuse to eat. Seek prompt evaluation from your primary care doctor to prevent potential damage to the eardrum.
- Protect your ears during flight. If possible, don't fly if you have a cold or an active allergy that causes nasal or ear congestion. During takeoffs and landings, keep your ears clear with pressure-equalizing earplugs, yawning or chewing gum. Or use the Valsalva maneuver — gently pushing air into your nose, as if blowing your nose, while pinching your nostrils and keeping your mouth closed. Don't sleep during ascents and descents.
- Keep your ears free of foreign objects. Never attempt to dig out excess or hardened earwax with items such as a cotton swab, paper clip or hairpin. These items can easily tear or puncture your eardrum. Teach your children about the damage that can be done by putting foreign objects in their ears.
- Guard against explosive noise. Avoid activities that expose your ears to explosions. If your hobbies or work involves planned activities that produce explosive noise, protect your ears from unnecessary damage by wearing protective earplugs or earmuffs.
Most ruptured eardrums heal without treatment within a few weeks. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotic drops if there's evidence of infection. If the tear or hole in your eardrum doesn't heal by itself, treatment will likely involve procedures to close the tear or hole. These may include:
- Eardrum patch. If the tear or hole in your eardrum doesn't close on its own, an ENT specialist may seal it with a patch. With this office procedure, your ENT provider may apply a chemical to the edges of the tear, which can promote ear drum healing, and then apply a patch over the hole. The procedure may need to be repeated more than once before the hole closes.
- Surgery. If a patch doesn't result in proper healing or your ENT doctor determines that the tear isn't likely to heal with a patch, he or she may recommend surgery. The most common surgical procedure is called tympanoplasty. Your surgeon grafts a patch of your own tissue to close the hole in the eardrum. This procedure is done on an outpatient basis. In an outpatient procedure, you can usually go home the same day unless medical anesthesia conditions require a longer hospital stay.