Okay to fly with ruptured eardrum?

Originally Published: January 19, 2001 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: July 24, 2014
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Dear Alice,

I have a quarter-inch tear in my left eardrum from a three-meter diving accident. I was wondering if it is possible for me to fly with a ruptured eardrum. I really need to fly home. Are there special earplugs I could buy that would make the flight bearable? It's only an hour-and-a-half flight.

Not quite whole in Massachusetts,

Casey

Dear Casey,

Before you book that ticket, it is important to know that the altitude of the flight — and not the amount of time you are in the air — can harm your healing eardrum. Barotrauma, or a sudden change in ear pressure, is a common cause of eardrum ruptures. Barotrauma can also occur during explosions or diving mishaps. Even during a very brief flight, the change in pressure due to high flying altitudes may cause your aching eardrum to re-rupture.

The tympanic membrane (also known as the eardrum) separates the outer and middle ears. This membrane vibrates when sound waves hit it, creating nerve impulses that the brain identifies as sound. The tympanic membrane is very delicate, allowing it to respond to the softest sounds. This fragility, which makes eavesdropping possible, also creates the possibility of perforation. Eardrum perforations can cause:

  • Ear pain ranging from moderate to severe
  • Loss of hearing
  • Buzzing sounds
  • Dizziness, and/or
  • Drainage from the affected ear(s)

People experiencing these symptoms need to seek immediate medical attention. A health care professional will be able to use an otoscope to view the eardrum, assess the degree of damage, and prescribe the necessary treatment.

Ruptured eardrums generally take about two weeks to heal, but only your health care provider can decide when you're ready for takeoff. Columbia students may make an appointment with Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Alice