Straight, No Chaser: Ruptured Eardrums


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 your physicians feel about the practice.
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)
  • a pressure 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.  If this ever occurs, you must be careful to avoid getting water in the ear. Finally, 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.
Just remember: the ears have been cleaning themselves for at least thousands of years prior to cotton swabs. Chasing that itch isn’t worth the consequences of the pain of a ruptured eardrum.
Feel free to ask your SMA expert consultant any questions you may have on this topic.
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