A ruptured eardrum is an opening or hole in the eardrum. The eardrum is a thin piece of tissue that separates the outer and middle ear. Damage to the eardrum may harm hearing.
Ear infections may cause a ruptured eardrum. This occurs more often in children. The infection causes pus or fluid to build up behind the eardrum. As the pressure increases, the eardrum may break open (rupture).
Damage to the eardrum can also occur from:
- A very loud noise close to the ear, such as a gunshot
- A rapid change in ear pressure, which may occur when flying, scuba diving, or driving in the mountains
- Foreign objects in the ear
- Injury to the ear (such as from a powerful slap or explosion)
- Inserting cotton-tipped swabs or small objects into the ears to clean them
Ear pain may suddenly decrease right after your eardrum ruptures.
After the rupture, you may have:
Exams and Tests
The doctor will look in your ear with an instrument called an otoscope. If the eardrum is ruptured, the doctor will see an opening in it. The bones of the middle ear may also be visible.
Pus draining from the ear may make it harder for the doctor to see the eardrum.
Audiology testing can measure how much hearing has been lost.
You can take steps at home to treat ear pain.
- Put warm compresses on the ear to help relieve discomfort.
- Use medicines such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to ease pain.
Keep the ear clean and dry while it is healing.
- Place cotton balls in the ear while showering or shampooing to prevent water from entering the ear.
- Avoid swimming or putting your head underneath the water.
Your health care provider may prescribe antibiotics (oral or ear drops) to prevent or treat an infection.
Sometimes the health care provider may place a patch over the eardrum to speed healing. Surgical repair of the eardrum (tympanoplasty) may be needed if the eardrum does not heal on its own.
The opening in the eardrum usually heals by itself within 2 months. Any hearing loss is most often short-term.
Rarely, other problems may occur, such as:
- Long-term hearing loss
- Spread of infection to the bone behind the ear (mastoiditis)
- Long-term vertigo and dizziness
When to Contact a Medical Professional
If your pain and symptoms improve after your eardrum ruptures, you may wait until the next day to see your health care provider.
Call your health care provider right away after your eardrum ruptures if you:
- Are very dizzy
- Have a fever, general ill feeling, or hearing loss
- Have very bad pain or a loud ringing in your ear
- Have an object in your ear that does not come out
- Have any symptoms that last longer than 2 months after treatment
Do not insert objects into the ear canal, even to clean it. Objects stuck in the ear should only be removed by a health care provider. Have ear infections treated promptly.
Tympanic membrane perforation; Eardrum - ruptured or perforated; Perforated eardrum
Buttaravoli P, Leffler SM. Perforated tympanic membrane (ruptured eardrum). In: Buttaravoli P, Leffler SM, eds. Minor Emergencies. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby Elsevier; 2012:chap 37.
Kerschner JE. Otitis media. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 632.
Update Date 5/18/2014
Updated by: Ashutosh Kacker, MD, BS, Professor of Clinical Otolaryngology, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Attending Otolaryngologist, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.