Can You Swim With a Ruptured Eardrum?

If you’ve hurt your eardrum recently but the pain has since subsided, that doesn’t mean you are out of the woods just yet. You may still be recovering from a ruptured eardrum. During that time, it is essential that bacteria doesn’t enter your ears, and swimming is one of the worst things you can do in that regard.

Can You Swim With a Ruptured Eardrum

Swimming is not recommended after a burst eardrum because water that enters the middle ear increases the risk of ear infection, the risk of further injury, and can cause pain and discomfort, among various other issues. Keeping your ear dry is essential for several weeks after your eardrum bursts to ensure a speedy recovery without any complications.

In this article, we will go over in more detail the top reasons why it’s not a good idea to swim with a ruptured eardrum, as well as other precautions you should take so that you do not worsen your injury. Let’s get started.

Risks of Swimming with a Ruptured Eardrum

Risk of Infection

When you have a ruptured eardrum, the thin layer that separates the outer ear canal from the sensitive middle ear is compromised. This membrane normally acts as a barrier, preventing unwanted substances, including water and bacteria, from entering the middle ear. 

Swimming with a ruptured eardrum exposes the middle ear to water from various sources—pools, lakes, or oceans. These waters often contain bacteria and other pathogens. Without the protective barrier of the intact eardrum, these pathogens have a direct path to the middle ear, where they can thrive in the warm, moist environment, leading to painful and potentially serious infections. 

Conditions such as otitis media (an infection of the middle ear) or mastoiditis (an infection of the mastoid bone located behind the ear) can result from these exposures and may require antibiotic treatment.

Potential for Further Injury

The act of swimming, especially diving or jumping into the water, exposes the ear to rapid pressure changes. For a healthy, intact eardrum, these changes are typically harmless. 

However, for someone with a ruptured eardrum, these pressure fluctuations can be harmful. The vulnerable site can become more injured due to the pressure, potentially delaying the natural healing process. In worst-case scenarios, the injury can worsen, leading to more extensive damage that may require medical intervention or even surgery to repair.

Compromised Hearing

An eardrum plays a crucial role in the hearing process. It vibrates in response to sound waves, sending these vibrations to the tiny bones in the middle ear, which then transmit the signals to the inner ear. 

A rupture in the eardrum can affect this transmission process, causing diminished hearing. When swimming with compromised hearing, you might find it hard to hear potential dangers in the environment, such as approaching boats, or communication signals from fellow swimmers or lifeguards. This can compromise safety during aquatic activities.

Pain and Discomfort

A ruptured eardrum is often sensitive and may be associated with pain. Introducing water into the ear canal can exacerbate this discomfort. Many people describe a sharp, stinging sensation when water contacts the injured site. 

Moreover, the pH level or chlorine in pool water, or the salt in seawater, can irritate the sensitive tissues of the middle ear, causing inflammation or exacerbating pain.

Risk of Vertigo

The ear isn’t just for hearing; it also plays a crucial role in maintaining balance. The inner ear contains structures that help us sense our position in space and keep our balance. If water penetrates into the middle or inner ear due to a ruptured eardrum, it can interfere with these balance mechanisms. 

This interference can lead to vertigo—a sensation where either you or your surroundings seem to be spinning or moving when neither is actually moving. Experiencing vertigo while swimming can be disorienting and dangerous, as it might increase the risk of drowning.

Treatment Setbacks

If a ruptured eardrum is under medical treatment, introducing water or potential contaminants can interfere with the healing process. Topical medications or protective barriers used to treat or protect the injury could be washed away or diluted. 

Furthermore, repeated exposure to water might keep the site moist, potentially prolonging the duration of recovery. Thus, swimming might counteract the benefits of medical treatments, making them less effective.

Potential for Water Trapping

A healthy eardrum serves as a barrier that prevents water from getting trapped deep within the ear. With a rupture, water can more easily enter and become trapped in the middle ear or even flow further into the inner ear. This trapped water can be a source of discomfort and further exacerbate the risk of bacterial growth and infections. 

Moreover, the feeling of water stuck in the ear can be persistent and annoying, requiring medical intervention to remove in some cases.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I tell if I’ve ruptured my eardrum?

A ruptured eardrum can manifest through various symptoms. Here are some common indications that you might have ruptured your eardrum:

  • Sudden Sharp Pain: While the actual moment of rupture can be painful, the pain often subsides quickly, leading some to believe the issue has resolved.
  • Ear Drainage: You might notice a clear, pus-filled, or bloody discharge from your ear.
  • Hearing Loss: A decrease in your ability to hear from the affected ear can be a symptom. This might be temporary, but it’s a sign that something is wrong.
  • Tinnitus: This refers to a ringing, buzzing, or roaring sound in the ears.
  • Vertigo or Dizziness: The inner ear is crucial for balance. A rupture can affect this, leading to feelings of spinning or dizziness.
  • Fullness or Pressure in the Ear: It might feel like there’s water or pressure trapped in your ear, leading to a sensation of fullness.

If you experience any of these symptoms, particularly after a traumatic event like a slap to the ear, rapid altitude change, or after a loud blast or explosion, it’s crucial to seek medical attention. And in the meantime, do not go swimming.

How long does it typically take for a ruptured eardrum to heal?

The healing time for a ruptured eardrum varies depending on the severity of the rupture and individual factors. However, most minor ruptures heal on their own within a few weeks. Here’s a general guideline:

  • Small Perforations: These often heal within a few weeks without any intervention. Your doctor might prescribe antibiotics to prevent infections or advise over-the-counter pain relievers.
  • Larger Perforations or Complications: These might take a couple of months to heal. In cases where the eardrum doesn’t heal on its own, surgical interventions like a tympanoplasty (where a graft is used to seal the hole) might be required.

Regular check-ups with an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) can help monitor the healing process and ensure there are no complications.

Can I wear earplugs or a swim cap to protect my ruptured eardrum while swimming?

Swimming is not recommended after a burst eardrum even with earplugs or a swim cap on. They are not entirely waterproof and some water can still enter. Pressure changes caused by diving can cause additional injury to a perforated eardrum, which earplugs and swim caps also do not protect against.

Keeping your ear dry is essential for several weeks after your eardrum bursts. The best way to do that is to avoid swimming altogether until your eardrums are fully healed.

What should I do if I accidentally swam with a ruptured eardrum?

If you’ve inadvertently swum with a ruptured eardrum, consider the following steps:

  1. Dry Your Ear: Gently dab (don’t rub) the outside of your ear with a soft cloth to remove any external moisture. Avoid inserting anything into the ear canal.
  2. Visit a Healthcare Professional: Even if you feel fine, it’s essential to get checked out. They can assess if any water or pathogens entered the middle ear and recommend treatments or preventive measures.
  3. Monitor for Symptoms: Be vigilant about symptoms like pain, swelling, drainage, hearing loss, or dizziness. If these arise, seek medical attention immediately.
  4. Avoid Further Exposure: Until your eardrum is fully healed, avoid activities that might cause further harm or risk, including swimming.

Can a minor tear in the eardrum be as risky as a full rupture when swimming?

Yes, even a minor tear in the eardrum can present risks similar to a full rupture when swimming. Both scenarios compromise the eardrum’s integrity, creating a potential entryway for water and pathogens to access the middle ear. This can lead to infections, worsened damage, and prolonged healing times. 

Whether the tear is small or there’s a complete rupture, the protective barrier function of the eardrum is compromised. Therefore, it’s advisable to exercise the same level of caution and care for both minor tears and full ruptures when considering swimming or other water-related activities.