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Avoiding ruptured eardrums in summer

Summer can be a vulnerable time for one’s ear health, as many problems can be triggered from swimming and loud outdoor concert music.

According to South Korea’s Health Ministry, Koreans seek medical help for ruptured eardrums the most in July and August. From 2010 to 2014, an average of 3,803 people per year saw doctors for the condition during the two summer months, as compared to 2,780 people from January to February.

The condition, which may lead to hearing loss, is especially common in male teens.

Summer can be a vulnerable time for one’s ear heath, as many problems can be triggered from swimming and loud outdoor concert music. (Yonhap)
Summer can be a vulnerable time for one’s ear heath, as many problems can be triggered from swimming and loud outdoor concert music. (Yonhap)

One of the reasons behind the statistics has to do with summertime swimming, which can often cause a sudden change in pressure that may rupture an eardrum, the ministry said.

Swimming in polluted water can also lead to ear infection, which may cause fluid to build up behind the eardrum and eventually rupture it. Another big cause of a ruptured eardrum is loud noise, like an explosion or extremely loud concert music. Such an acoustic trauma may cause sound waves that are strong enough to damage the eardrum.

The condition is also common in the summer because many people take flights for vacation overseas.

“Flying causes a change in air pressure, especially when the plane descends,” said Dr. Choi Hyun-seung from the National Health Insurance Service Ilsan Hospital.

“Blowing one’s nose while pinching their nostrils shut during takeoffs and landing (to force equalizing the pressure in their ears) can be dangerous, and can lead to eardrum perforations. Chewing gum, yawning or swallowing are recommended instead.”

A torn eardrum usually heals on its own in six to eight weeks. In some cases, however, one may need prescribed antibiotics if there is a risk of infection developing in the middle ear while the eardrum is healing.

A surgical procedure may also be necessary if it does not heal by itself ― meaning symptoms continue for three weeks or more ― or if there is hearing loss, to either repair the torn eardrum or apply chemicals to encourage natural healing.

Some of the symptoms of a perforated eardrum include mild to severe pain, hearing loss, ringing or buzzing in the ear, dizziness, and weakness in the muscles of one’s face. Doctors say one should avoid water getting into the ear while it is healing. It is best not to swim during this period, and the patient is encouraged to stuff wool into the outer ear while washing hair or showering.

While there are many options to treat the condition, the Health Ministry said a lot of eardrum perforations are preventable.

Health experts advise against sticking any object in one’s ear, even for the purpose of cleaning it. If one has a foreign object suck in the ear, it’s crucial to have it removed by a health care professional. Trying to remove it at home by oneself, especially by using fingers, could damage the ear.

Also, one is advised not to scuba dive if one has an ear or sinus infection, as such conditions increase the chances of rupturing the eardrum when diving into water. It is also advised that those who wish to scuba dive take lessons in advance, and make sure to learn how to equalize the pressure in their ears under water.

To avoid acoustic trauma, health experts advise not to stand or sit right next to a speaker at a concert. Parents are advised not to let their children sleep with earbuds in at night.

The Health Ministry also advises the public to follow water safety guidelines, as more than half the drowning cases in Korea occur during summer. Drowning is the third-leading cause of accidental death for Koreans aged 20 and under.

To minimize risks, the ministry advises parents never to let their children go into water alone or leave them near any water alone. “Children aged 4 or under can drown in waters of less than 6 centimeters in depth,” the ministry said in a statement.

By Claire Lee (