A perforated or burst eardrum is a hole in the eardrum. It will usually heal within a few weeks and might not need any treatment.
But it's a good idea to see your GP if you think your eardrum has burst, as it can cause problems such as ear infections.
This page covers:
When to see your GP
Treatments and surgery
Symptoms of a perforated eardrum
Signs of a perforated eardrum or ear infection include:
- sudden hearing loss – you may find it difficult to hear anything or your hearing may just be slightly muffled
- earache or pain in your ear
- itching in your ear
- fluid leaking from your ear
- a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
- ringing or buzzing in your ear (tinnitus)
The symptoms will usually pass once your eardrum has healed and any infection has been treated.
When to see your GP
See your GP if:
- you think you have a perforated eardrum
- you've already seen your GP and your symptoms aren't any better after a few weeks or you get new symptoms (such as earache, a fever, itching or fluid leaking from the ear)
Your eardrum will usually heal without treatment, but your GP can check for an infection (which may need treatment) and talk to you about how you can look after your ear.
Your GP will look into your ear using a small, hand-held torch with a magnifying lens. The tip of this goes into your ear, but it only goes in a little way and shouldn't hurt.
Treatments for a perforated eardrum
Perforated eardrums don't always need to be treated because they often get better by themselves within a few weeks.
While it heals, the following tips can help you relieve your symptoms and reduce the chances of your ear becoming infected:
- don't put anything in your ear, such as cotton buds or eardrops (unless your doctor recommends them)
- don't get water in your ear – don't go swimming and be extra careful when showering or washing your hair
- try not to blow your nose too hard, as this can damage your eardrum as it heals
- hold a warm flannel against your ear to help reduce any pain
- take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve pain if you need to (don't give aspirin to children under 16)
If you have an ear infection, your GP may prescribe antibiotics.
If the hole in your eardrum is big or doesn't heal in a few weeks, your GP may refer you to an ear specialist to talk about having surgery to repair a perforated eardrum.
Causes of a perforated eardrum
A hole in the eardrum can be caused by:
- an ear infection
- an injury to the eardrum, such as a blow to your ear or poking an object like a cotton bud deep into your ear
- changes in air pressure, such as while flying or scuba diving
- a sudden loud noise, such as an explosion
The following tips may help you avoid damaging your eardrum:
- see your GP for treatment if you have symptoms of an ear infection for more than two or three days
- don't push anything deep into your ears, including your fingers
- wear suitable ear protection if you're often exposed to loud noises
- when flying, try swallowing, yawning, chewing gum or sucking on a boiled sweet during take-off and landing
Find out more about flying if you have a perforated eardrum.
You may need surgery to repair your perforated eardrum if the hole in your eardrum is large or doesn't heal in a few weeks
The type of operation you'll have is called a myringoplasty.
This page covers:
Recovery and aftercare advice
Risks and complications
What happens during surgery for a perforated eardrum
Surgery to repair a burst eardrum is usually carried out in hospital under general anaesthetic (where you're asleep).
During the procedure:
- a small cut is made just in front or behind your ear and a small piece of tissue is removed from under your skin – this will leave a small scar, which will usually be covered by your hair
- small surgical instruments are used to patch the hole in your eardrum with this piece of tissue – this may be done through your ear opening, or through a small cut made next to your ear
- a dressing is placed in your ear to hold the patch in place and stop water and germs getting in – this usually stays in place for about two or three weeks
- cotton wool padding is put over your ear and held in place with a bandage
- the cut(s) in your skin are closed with stitches
Most people can go home on the same day or the day after the operation.
Recovering from surgery for a perforated eardrum
It usually takes a few weeks for your eardrum to heal.
A follow-up appointment for about two or three weeks after your operation will be arranged before or soon after leaving hospital.
Looking after yourself
After the operation:
- make sure someone stays with you for the first 24 hours – don't drive or drink alcohol during this time
- change the cotton wool in your ear every day (but leave the dressing that's deeper in your ear in place)
- avoid getting your ear wet – place cotton wool covered in petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline) in your ear when showering
- you may need to stay off work (or school) for about a week – you might be off for longer if your job involves lots of moving or bending over
- after about a week, speak to your GP surgery about getting your stitches removed (if they don't dissolve by themselves)
Activities to avoid
Until you've had your follow-up appointment, avoid:
- flying – read more about flying with a perforated eardrum
- close contact with sick people – you could pick up an ear infection
- sports and other strenuous activities
- blowing your nose too hard – if you need to sneeze, try to keep your mouth open to reduce the pressure in your ear
Your doctor or nurse will advise you when to return to normal activities.
When to get medical advice
It's normal to have some discomfort, dizziness, unusual noises in your ear and a little bleeding for the first few days after surgery.
Contact the hospital or your GP if:
- you have lots of fluid or blood coming from your ear, particularly if the fluid smells bad
- you have pain that's severe and isn't relieved with painkillers
- you feel very dizzy or the dizziness doesn't improve in a few days
- your ear is red, swollen and itchy
Risks of surgery for a perforated eardrum
Surgery to repair a perforated eardrum doesn't usually cause any serious problems.
But possible risks include:
- a wound infection, which can cause pain, bleeding and leaking of fluid – contact the hospital or your GP if you have these symptoms
- ringing or buzzing in your ear (tinnitus) – this usually improves in time, but can sometimes be permanent
- changes in taste – these are usually temporary, but can occasionally be permanent
- worse hearing or hearing loss – although permanent hearing loss is rare
- inability to move muscles in part of the face – this may get better over time, but can be permanent in rare cases
Before you have surgery, talk to your surgeon about the possible benefits and risks of the operation.