Most ear emergencies result from some form of trauma. This trauma can be self-induced--a child's putting a foreign object in the ear-- or accidental--exposure to the blast from a firecracker or gun.

When ER Visit is Needed for Ear Emergency

Ear Emergencies: Know When ER Visit is Needed for Ear Emergency

Ear injuries and trauma can cause damage to any part of the outer or inner ear. Accidents, loud noises, changes in air pressure, trauma from contact sports and foreign objects in the ear can cause injuries. Ear injuries can lead to dizziness, balance problems, hearing loss or changes in the ear’s appearance. Some ear injuries need surgical repair.

Earaches and Ear Infections

Earaches and ear infections can have a variety of causes—viral, bacterial and fungal—and can affect different parts of the ear. Common infections include inner ear, middle ear and outer ear infections (or what is commonly known as “swimmer’s ear).

Ear infections also can be caused by scratching the ear canal when cleaning their ear, especially if a cotton-tipped applicator or dangerously sharp small object, such as a hair clip, is used. In other cases, a middle ear infection can cause an external infection to develop through the draining of pus into the ear canal through a hole in the eardrum.

Some ear emergencies are treatable at home, and others need specialist care. With ears being so delicate, it’s worthwhile knowing what to do in each common situation.

Objects Stuck in the Ear

Kids often get objects stuck in their ears. If this happens to your child, don’t try to remove it yourself as there’s a danger you’ll push it further in and cause damage.

A doctor can look inside the ear with an Otoscope to locate the object, and then safely retrieve it with small medical instruments. Once the object is removed, the doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics to prevent infection.

Insects in the Ear

Insects have been known to fly or crawl into ears. The insect will probably come out by itself, but if it doesn’t there are other ways to get it out. Don’t try poking it out with a finger or other instrument as this may make the insect sting.

  • Tip the head to one side and slowly and gently pour oil into the ear. Use olive, baby or mineral oil. In adults, pull the lobe up and back at the same time, but for children, it works better if the lobe is pulled down and back to open up the ear canal. The insect should float out on the oil.
  • When the insect is out (or if you can’t remove it) seek medical attention to check no parts of the insect have remained inside.

Ruptured or Burst Eardrum

Eardrums are thin membranes inside the ear that vibrate when sound hits them. Because they’re quite delicate, they burst or rupture relatively easily when foreign bodies are pushed into the ear, through sudden loud noises, or ear infections. A burst eardrum is painful and you may see some discharge with blood. If you suspect a burst eardrum, keep the ear clean by placing sterile cotton over the outside and go to the nearest emergency room for medical help. Never push cotton swabs into the ear to try to clean it, or pour liquid inside.

Drainage from the Ear

Any drainage from the ear could become an ear emergency and should be left alone until go to the ER location near you for medical help. Cover the ear on the outside with a dressing taped loosely into place, and lie the patient down with the affected ear under their head so it can drain freely. Don’t try to block the drainage or clean it yourself, and don’t try to remove foreign objects as you could accidentally push them deeper.

Ear Infections

Both adults and children can get ear infections. These are mostly in the middle ear where germs from the nose and throat can become trapped. Colds and flu can make the Eustachian tubes swell or block up, causing earache. Babies and young children are more susceptible since their tubes are smaller.

Sometimes, a build-up of fluid can cause the eardrum to burst, in which case you’ll notice fluid coming out. It’s normally not serious and actually helps earache disappear as pressure is relieved. The eardrum will usually heal by itself. Other times, children complain of earache when the fluid backs up but doesn’t become infected. They may complain their ears feel “bunged up” and they may have trouble hearing. It can take a few weeks for all the fluid to drain away inside the ear, with hearing returning to normal afterward.

If necessary, your doctor will give antibiotics, although normally ear infections clear up without prescribed medication. Over-the-counter pain relievers are effective against pain, and a warm washcloth held against the ear can bring comfort.

Occasionally, when children suffer repeated ear infections, minor surgery is offered to insert small tubes that help.

Swimmer’s Ear

Swimmer’s Ears are ear emergencies. This affects the outer ear canal and is usually due to water staying in the ears after bathing or swimming, which irritates the delicate skin in that area. Sometimes this causes pain when chewing or opening the mouth because the ear canal swells. Antibiotics are normally needed to fight the infection.

Impacted Ear Wax

Ear emergencies come in different forms. Loss of hearing is probably the first indication of earwax that’s become impacted. It can be caused by over-vigorous ear cleaning that pushes wax further down the canal instead of cleaning it out. Wax impaction can cause pain and dizziness, but can often be treated with over-the-counter remedies. If these don’t help, see your doctor to get the excess wax flushed out.

What are the symptoms of ear injuries?

Not all ear infections or mishaps need urgent care but if you experience any of the following, you should get help:

  • Ear pain (earache), which can be severe
  • Dizziness and balance problems
  • Headache
  • Hearing loss
  • Pus or bleeding from the ear
  • Tinnitus (buzzing or ringing in the ear).

What causes ear injuries?

There are several causes of ear injury and trauma, including:

  • Accidents and injuries: Trauma from a fall, car accident or contact sports can cause serious ear injuries
  • Changes in pressure: Scuba diving and flying on an airplane can lead to a perforated (ruptured) eardrum
  • Foreign objects: Inserting a pen or another object into your ear canal can damage the bones, cartilage and tissue
  • Loud noises: Eardrums can also tear due to loud noises, such as gunshots, explosions and loud music concerts. Long-term exposure to loud noise can cause permanent hearing loss

Ear injuries can range from minor to life-threatening. If you or your child has severe ear pain, bleeding ears, dizziness, or hearing loss, go to the closest emergency room for medical help. These are signs of a serious medical condition, especially after a blow to the head, fall or other accident.

To prevent an ear injury, never put anything in your ears. Wear protective headgear during contact sports. Avoid listening to music at high volumes, and wear ear protection if you’re exposed to loud noises.