The eardrum is required for hearing because it detects sound waves and transmits the vibrations to the brain, but in addition it works as a shield to isolate the inner ear and keep it free from infection. Your inner ear is essentially a sterile, safe environment when your eardrum is intact, but if it has been perforated or torn, microbes can get in, and may result in serious infections.
A ruptured eardrum (more accurately, a tympanic membrane perforation) is what happens when this vital membrane develops tears or punctures. There are various causes of perforated eardrums. The most common is an inner ear infection. Fluid associated with the infection pushes up against the membrane, increasing pressure until it ultimately tears. Lots of people puncture their own eardrums by inserting foreign objects into the ears, such as the use of Q-tips to take out ear wax. Another frequent root cause is barotrauma – the problem that occurs when the barometric pressure outside the ear is different from the pressure inside the ear – which may occur while scuba diving or flying. Eardrums can also become ruptured due to acoustic trauma or head injuries such as explosions.
Warning signs of perforated eardrums include:
- Pain in the ear
- Hearing loss in the afflicted ear
- Vertigo or dizziness
- Fluid draining from the ear
A ruptured ear drum should be examined and treated by a professional. Prompt attention is important to prevent infection and hearing damage. Left untreated, you risk serious inner and middle ear infections, middle ear cysts and the possibility of long term loss of hearing.
Specialists assess this condition using an otoscope, which is a tool with an internal light that enables them to see the eardrum. Ruptured eardrums normally heal on their own in eight to 12 weeks. During this time, your healthcare provider will most likely advise you to avoid diving and swimming and to avoid blowing your nose as much as possible. It’s also wise to avoid any extraneous medications. If the puncture or tear is near the edge of the eardrum, the doctor can help the recovery process by placing a temporary dam or patch to help prevent infection, or even propose surgery.
Any pain can be handled with over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Measures you could take to prevent a punctured eardrum include not inserting any objects in your ears, and seeing your doctor promptly to address any ear infections.