How Serious Is a Perforated Eardrum? | Banner Health (2024)

We’ve all heard the old phrase: Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear. Yet it doesn’t stop many of us from grabbing a Q-tip or cotton swab — and even foreign objects like keys and pens — to clear out earwax.

While it may feel good in the moment, you may do more harm than good.

Our ears are pretty much self-cleaning organs. When you shove a cotton swab in there, you can’t actually remove the wax. In fact, you may just push the wax deeperin your ear canal and potentially scratch or burst your eardrum.

Called a perforated or ruptured eardrum, a burst eardrum can result in a loss of hearing in the affected ear, a risk of infection and a great deal of pain.

Read on to learn more about your eardrum, signs and symptoms you’ve ruptured it and how to properly treat a perforated eardrum.

What is a perforated or ruptured eardrum?

A ruptured eardrum is a tear or hole in the delicate tissue that makes up your eardrum known as the tympanic membrane. The tympanic membrane separates the ear canal from the middle ear (the space behind the eardrum) and plays an important role in sound transmission.

“When sound enters the ear canal as a wave of pressure, this pressure makes the eardrum vibrate,” said Christopher Adams, PA, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Banner Health in Tucson, AZ. “This vibration is then sent along the three bones of hearing (the ossicles) to the hearing organ (cochlea) where it is turned into an electrical signal that is sent to the brain.”

The tympanic membrane is tough and flexible, but it’s not immune to damage.

“A perforated eardrum disrupts normal sound amplification and sound transmission, which can lead to hearing loss,” Adams said. “If the hole in the eardrum is large enough, there is also a higher risk of getting an infection of the middle ear, especially if water gets into that area.”

How do I know if my eardrum has ruptured?

Sudden hearing loss, either full or partial, is a tell-tale sign, but there are a number of other symptoms of a ruptured eardrum to watch out for:

  • Ear pain
  • Ringing or buzzing in the ears or tinnitus
  • Feeling your ear is plugged up or full
  • Drainage from the ear
  • Vertigo or a spinning sensation

What causes a ruptured eardrum?

Cotton swabs are a major culprit for tympanic membrane perforations, but there are many factors that can cause an eardrum to rupture as well.

These include:

  • Middle ear infection: Also known as otitis media,a middle ear infection occurs when viruses or bacteria cause fluid build-up behind the eardrum, causing pressure. This may cause the eardrum to tear as a result. Middle ear infections are very common in children.
  • Sudden changes in air pressure: When the pressure outside the ear is different from the pressure inside your ear, this can cause a perforation. Air travel and scuba diving can impact your ears.
  • Head or acoustic trauma: Any sort of blow to the head or very loud noises can cause a ruptured eardrum. Anything over 85 decibels for extended periods of time can cause permanent hearing loss. Things like loud music, fireworks or gunshots at close range can cause perforation.

What is the treatment for a perforated eardrum?

In most cases, a ruptured eardrum isn’t serious, but it’s important to see your health care provider or an ear, nose and throat specialist so they can assess and treat accordingly. If there is an infection that caused the perforation, they’ll most likely want to prescribe antibiotics to treat it first.

With a perforated eardrum, it’s very important to keep your ear dry until it heals. A wet ear will affect healing and may result in a serious infection.

“We usually recommend placing a cotton ball covered in Vaseline in the ear when showering and avoiding putting your head under water,” Adams said.

With proper care, a small, punctured eardrum may recover in a few weeks or few months. If it doesn’t heal, there are a few surgical techniques such as tympanoplasty or paper patch myringolplasty. These can help either patch the hole or rebuild a new eardrum depending on how big the perforation is.

Ways you can prevent a ruptured eardrum

There are several things you can do to avoid having a perforated eardrum.

  • Numero uno? Avoid sticking cotton swabs in the ear canal.
  • Treat middle ear infections quickly to avoid potential damage to the eardrums. Signs of a middle ear infection include reduced hearing, nasal congestion, earaches and fevers. In young children, they may rub or pull at their ears as well.
  • Guard against loud noises. Wear protective earmuffs or earplugs if you’ll be around loud noises nearby.
  • Avoid flying if you have a cold or an allergy that causes ear congestion. If you have to fly, make sure you keep your ears clear during take-off and landing. You can yawn, chew gum or pinch your nose and gently blow (known as the Valsalva maneuver).


A ruptured or perforated eardrum can be painful but most often isn’t serious.

However, if it’s not treated properly, it can put you at risk of infection and possible hearing loss if not treated properly. Most often perforated eardrums can heal on their own — usually within three months — but may require antibiotics or surgery.

Visit your health care provider or an ear, nose and throat specialist if you’re experiencing persistent ear pain, drainage, loss of hearing, vertigo or ringing in the ears. They can guide you on how to take care of your eardrums.

To find a Banner Health ENT specialistnear you, visit

Related articles:

  • 5 Ways to Remove Water From Your Ears
  • Are Earbuds Putting Your Hearing at Risk?
  • Tips for Using Ear Drops Correctly
  • Don't Stifle Your Sneeze

Ear, Nose and Throat

As an enthusiast with a deep understanding of ear health and anatomy, let's delve into the concepts presented in the article about ruptured or perforated eardrums.

1. Self-Cleaning Nature of Ears: The article emphasizes that our ears are essentially self-cleaning organs. The ear canal has its mechanisms for managing earwax, and attempting to clean it with objects like cotton swabs may lead to complications.

2. Structure of the Ear and Hearing Process: The article describes the structure of the ear, particularly focusing on the tympanic membrane, commonly known as the eardrum. It explains how the eardrum separates the ear canal from the middle ear and plays a crucial role in sound transmission. The process of sound entering the ear canal as pressure waves and being transmitted through the ossicles to the cochlea is also explained.

3. Consequences of a Ruptured Eardrum: The article outlines the potential risks associated with a ruptured eardrum. This includes a loss of hearing in the affected ear, the risk of infection, and significant pain. The technical term for a perforated eardrum is introduced, highlighting its impact on sound amplification and transmission.

4. Symptoms of a Ruptured Eardrum: The article lists various symptoms that may indicate a ruptured eardrum, such as sudden hearing loss, ear pain, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), a feeling of ear plugging, and drainage from the ear. Vertigo or a spinning sensation is also mentioned.

5. Causes of a Ruptured Eardrum: The primary culprit for perforated eardrums mentioned in the article is the use of cotton swabs. However, other factors include middle ear infections, sudden changes in air pressure (as experienced during air travel or scuba diving), and head or acoustic trauma from loud noises.

6. Treatment and Care: The article advises seeking medical attention for a ruptured eardrum. If there is an infection, antibiotics may be prescribed. Keeping the ear dry during the healing process is crucial, and precautions like using a cotton ball covered in Vaseline during showering are suggested. Surgical techniques, such as tympanoplasty or paper patch myringoplasty, may be considered if the eardrum doesn't heal on its own.

7. Prevention Strategies: The article provides practical tips for preventing a ruptured eardrum, including avoiding the use of cotton swabs, prompt treatment of middle ear infections, protection against loud noises using earmuffs or earplugs, and precautions during air travel, especially if experiencing ear congestion.

In conclusion, the article offers comprehensive insights into the structure and function of the ear, the potential risks associated with improper ear care, and practical advice on prevention and treatment of ruptured eardrums.

How Serious Is a Perforated Eardrum? | Banner Health (2024)


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