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Straight, No Chaser: Ruptured Eardrums

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD November 14, 2018

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The manufacturers of Q-Tips used to run a commercial in which they said “Never place anything in your ear smaller than your elbow.”  I wonder why they stopped the commercial, because it pretty much summarizes how I feel about the situation.
Perforated tympanic membranes (aka ruptured eardrums) are holes in the sheet-like tissue that separates the ear canal from the middle ear. They are not a lot of fun. Because the ear is responsible for both hearing and balance, rupture can cause decreases of both. Common symptoms include pain, decreased hearing and bleeding.
Several different things can causes this, including the following:

  • infections (otitis media)
  • an imbalance between the two sides of the eardrum (if it becomes too severe, you’ll suffer what’s known as barotrauma), as seen in diving and air travel
  • direct trauma from placing objects in your ear (Put those cotton swabs and down!) or from a severe blow to the head/face
  • blast injuries (called acoustic trauma), caused by sudden, loud noises (e.g. explosions and gun shots; what’s actually happening here is a sound wave is damaging the ear drum)

Most tympanic membrane perforations heal spontaneously.  If the injury causing this was penetrating, your physician may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist within 24 hours.  You must be careful to avoid getting water in the ear. You won’t typically receive antibiotics for a ruptured eardrum unless the rupture is due to infection or forceful water injury, such as is seen in water skiing.
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0 thoughts on “Straight, No Chaser: Ruptured Eardrums

    1. Hi, Stephanie. People get water in the ear all the time from swimming and showering, so that’s usually ok (unless you’re prone to ‘swimmer’s ear’, aka otitis externa). Water on the other side of the eardrum increases the risk of infections and complications. Thanks for your questions and for following Straight, No Chaser.

        1. Hi, Annette. If you leave them alone, the ears will clean themselves and have been doing so for thousands of years. Whatever you can’t clean with a washcloth is better left alone. All it takes is experiencing the pain of a ruptured eardrum for one to realize how unnecessary scratching that ear itch was. Thanks for your question, and thanks for following Straight, No Chaser.

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