The eardrum is vital for hearing because it vibrates in response to sound waves and communicates the vibrations to the brain, but it also provides a barrier to isolate the inner ear and keep infection free. While intact, the eardrum seals off the inner ear creating a clean and sterile environment. If the ear drum is punctured or torn, the inner ear is left vulnerable to infection.
A perforated eardrum – also referred to as a ruptured eardrum orin medical terminology, as a tympanic membrane perforation – is a puncture or tear in this very thin important membrane. There are several causes of perforated eardrums. The most common is an inner ear infection. Fluid associated with the infection pushes against the eardrum membrane, increasing pressure until it finally rips. A further well-known reason for ruptured eardrums are foreign objects inserted into the ears. For example, it is possible to puncture your own eardrum with a Q-tip. Eardrums can also become ruptured as a result of flying or scuba diving on account of barotrauma, which arises when the barometric pressure inside the ear is different from the pressure outside the ear. Sudden loud noises and explosions may also cause punctured ear drums. This is known as acoustic trauma.
Warning signs of perforated eardrums include:
- Pain in the ear
- Hearing loss in the afflicted ear
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Fluid draining from the ear
Consult a specialist without delay if you encounter these signs and symptoms, because if your eardrum has become punctured, timely treatment helps to stave off infection and to reduce the risk of hearing loss. Untreated, a perforated eardrum can lead to middle and inner ear infections, middle ear cysts (cholesteatoma), and permanent hearing loss.
Punctured eardrums are diagnosed in a health care provider’s office using a tool known as an otoscope, which has an internal light which allows the specialist to view the eardrum clearly. Ruptured eardrums generally heal by themselves in 2 to 3 months, as long as infection is avoided and so long as the individual avoids activities that could irritate the problem, for example diving or swimming, avoiding medications outside of those recommended for the condition, and trying to not blow their nose while the healing is taking place. If the rip is large or occurs near one of its edges, the specialist may put in a short-term dam or patch to reduce the risk of infection; in very rare situations, surgery may be needed.
Pain from a ruptured eardrum is typically addressed with over-the-counter pain killers such as acetaminophen or aspirin. Not every ruptured eardrum can be prevented, but there are things you can do to decrease your risk. Always get immediate treatment for any ear infections and don’t put any objects into your ear.