A perforated eardrum is a hole or tear in the eardrum. It can be uncomfortable, but usually heals within a few weeks or months provided your ear is kept dry and there’s no infection.
The eardrum, also known as the tympanic membrane, is a thin layer of tissue that separates the outer ear from the middle ear.
A hole in the eardrum can be caused by:
- a middle ear infection, if pus builds up inside your ear and puts pressure on your eardrum
- an injury to the eardrum, such as a severe blow to the ear or poking an object such as a cotton bud deep into the ear
- a sudden loud noise, such as a loud explosion
- changes in air pressure, such as pressure changes while flying at high altitude or when scuba diving
Signs and symptoms
One of the main symptoms of a perforated eardrum is hearing loss. This can vary in severity, depending on the size of the hole, and usually goes back to normal once your eardrum has healed.
Some people also have symptoms of a middle ear infection, such as:
- earache or discomfort
- a discharge of mucus from your ear
- a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
You may have some ringing or buzzing in your ear (tinnitus) as well.
When to see your GP
See your GP if you have persistent symptoms of a perforated eardrum.
Although your eardrum will usually heal itself eventually, treatment may be necessary to prevent infections and help improve your hearing.
Your GP will use a special instrument called an auriscope or otoscope to examine your eardrum. These have a light and a lens that allow your GP to see any holes or tears in the eardrum.
Treating a perforated eardrum
Perforated eardrums don't always need to be treated because they normally heal by themselves in a few weeks or months provided that your ear is kept dry and there’s no infection.
If you have any pain or discomfort, you can take over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Never give aspirin to children under 16.
Placing a warm flannel against the affected ear may also help relieve the pain.
Your GP may prescribe antibiotics if your perforated eardrum was caused by an infection or if there is a risk that an infection will develop while your eardrum heals.
You can reduce your risk of developing an infection by keeping your ear dry until it's healed. Don't go swimming, and cover your ears when having a shower.
You may need surgery to repair your eardrum if the hole is particularly large or doesn't heal. The procedure used to repair a perforated eardrum is known as a myringoplasty.
Read more about surgery for a perforated eardrum below.