Ear emergencies include objects in the ear canal and ruptured eardrums.
Children often stick objects into their ears. These objects can be difficult to remove because the ear canal is a tube of solid bone that is lined with thin, sensitive skin. Any object pressing against the skin can be very painful. In many cases, a doctor will need to use special instruments to examine the ear and safely remove the object.
Pain, hearing loss, dizziness, ringing in the ear, and ruptured eardrums can be caused by:
- Inserting cotton swabs, toothpicks, pins, pens, or other objects into the ear.
- Sudden changes in pressure, as from an explosion, blow to the head, flying, scuba diving, falling while water skiing, or being slapped on the head or ear.
- Loud percussions, such as a gun going off.
- Bleeding from the ear
- Bruising or redness
- Clear liquid coming out of the ear (brain fluid)
- Loss of hearing
- Nausea and vomiting
- Noises in the ear
- Sensations of an object in the ear
- Visible object in the ear
Follow the steps below, depending on the type of ear emergency.
OBJECT IN THE EAR
INSECT IN THE EAR
The person will have severe pain. Place sterile cotton gently in the outer ear canal to keep the inside of the ear clean.
CUTS ON THE OUTER EAR
DRAINAGE FROM INSIDE THE EAR
- DO NOT block any drainage coming from the ear.
- DO NOT try to clean or wash the inside of the ear canal.
- DO NOT put any liquid into the ear.
- DO NOT attempt to remove the object by probing with a cotton swab, pin, or any other tool. To do so will risk pushing the object farther into the ear and damaging the middle ear.
- DO NOT reach inside the ear canal with tweezers.
Call immediately for emergency medical assistance if
The following symptoms, which may indicate significant trauma to the ear, should be evaluated by a physician:
- Pain in the ear
- Ringing sounds
- Dizziness (vertigo)
- Hearing loss
- Drainage or blood from the ear
- Recent blow to your ear or head
- Never put anything in the ear canal without first consulting a health care provider.
- Never thump the head to try to correct an ear problem.
- Teach children not to put things in their ears.
- Avoid cleaning the ear canals altogether.
- After an ear injury, avoid nose blowing and getting water in the injured ear.
- Treat ear infections promptly.
If you tend to feel pain and pressure when flying, drink a lot of fluid before and during the flight. Avoid the use of alcohol, caffeine, or tobacco on the day of the flight. Chew gum, suck on hard candy, or yawn during take-off and landing. Talk to your doctor about taking a decongestant or using a nasal spray before you fly.
Thomas SH, White BA. Foreign bodies. In: Marx JA, ed. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 57.
Byyny RL, Shockley LW. Scuba diving and dysbarism. In: Marx JA, ed. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 141.
Last reviewed 8/12/2012 by Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Seth Schwartz, MD, MPH, Otolaryngologist, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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