When Should I Worry About...

What Does a Ruptured Eardrum Feel Like?

Dec. 19, 2023 - Katie McCallum

Pain is always hard to ignore — especially when it's ear pain.

But how do you know whether ear pain is due to something simple, like an earache that likely will get better on its own in a few days, or when it's something serious that warrants a doctor's attention, like a ruptured eardrum?

Dr. Gavin Le Nobel, an otolaryngologist specializing in ear health at Houston Methodist, answers everything from how to know if your eardrum might be ruptured to what the healing process looks like to when it's time to see an ear, nose and throat specialist.

What is a ruptured eardrum?

"The eardrum, also called the tympanic membrane, is a thin layer of tissue separating the ear canal and outer ear from the middle ear space," says Dr. Le Nobel. "A perforated (or ruptured) eardrum is when there is a hole in that thin tissue."

The eardrum plays a key role in both hearing and protecting the inner workings of your ear, so a perforated eardrum is an issue to take seriously. Complications of a ruptured eardrum range from compromised hearing to painful middle ear infections.

What causes a ruptured eardrum?

There are many potential causes of a ruptured eardrum, including:

  • Trauma, such as injuring the eardrum with a cotton swab
  • Exposure to loud sounds
  • Rapid changes in air pressure, such as with scuba diving or air travel
  • Severe ear infection

"Ear infections are especially an issue in children," says Dr. Le Nobel. "For people who had ear tubes placed due to frequent ear infections as a child, there is a chance of a persistent eardrum perforation after the tubes fall out."

What are the signs of a ruptured eardrum?

The term "ruptured" might seem to imply that you'll feel the damage as it's happening and immediately know something is wrong, but that's not always the case.

"A person typically doesn't realize there's an issue with the eardrum until symptoms arise," says Dr. Le Nobel.

Once they arise, the signs are fairly noticeable, though. Ruptured eardrum symptoms include:

"If you notice these symptoms, you should be assessed by a physician," adds Dr. Le Nobel. "If the eardrum is perforated, your doctor will determine the appropriate treatment."

How long does a ruptured eardrum take to heal?

A ruptured eardrum often heals on its own — within a few weeks to several months. In the meantime, though, Dr. Le Nobel stresses the importance of keeping your ear as dry as possible.

"The eardrum helps keep bacteria out of the middle ear, so having a perforation in it makes getting a middle infection easier," explains Dr. Le Nobel. "By keeping the ear dry until the eardrum has healed, we can help reduce the likelihood of infection."

He adds that treatment may be needed if the ear is already infected or becomes infected as you wait for it to heal. Contact your doctor if you notice discharge during this time.

In some cases, a perforated eardrum might not heal on its own and treatment to repair the hole may be needed.

When should you see a specialist about a ruptured eardrum?

If ruptured eardrum symptoms persist after a few months, your doctor will likely refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist (the easier-to-pronounce synonym for otolaryngologist).

"Several options can be considered if a perforated eardrum doesn't heal on its own, including in-office procedures as well as ones performed in an operating room," says Dr. Le Nobel. "During these procedures, we sometimes use pieces of thin tissue from other sites in and around the ear as a graft to repair the perforation and help with closure."

Your specialist will help you understand which ruptured eardrum treatment option is right for you.

And know that seeking care is crucial because, left untreated, a non-healing ruptured eardrum can lead to serious complications, including hearing loss and chronic or recurrent middle ear infections.

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