The eardrum is required for hearing because it vibrates in response to sound waves and transmits the vibrations to the brain, but it also provides a shield to seal off the inner ear and keep infection free. If your eardrum is intact, your inner ear is basically a sterile and protected environment; but once it is punctured or torn, microbes can enter and spark a serious infection generally known as otitis media.
A ruptured eardrum – often called a perforated eardrum ormedically, as a tympanic membrane perforation – is a tear or puncture in this thin important membrane. There are numerous causes of perforated ear drums. The most prevalent is an inner ear infection. Fluid at the site of the infection pushes against the eardrum membrane, building up pressure until it rips. The eardrum can also be punctured from poking objects into your ear, including Q-tips or other products used in an attempt to clear away ear wax at home. An additional common cause is barotrauma – the circumstance that occurs when the barometric pressure outside the ear is very different from the pressure inside the ear – which can happen on airplanes or while scuba diving. Injuries to the head or acoustic trauma (such as sudden explosions) can also puncture the eardrum.
Indications of ruptured eardrums include pain in the ear, hearing loss in the afflicted ear, vertigo or dizziness, and fluid draining from the ear. If you encounter any of these signs and symptoms, see a hearing health provider, because if the eardrum is ruptured, immediate and correct treatment is essential to prevent hearing damage and infection. What you chance by not having these symptoms addressed are serious inner ear infections and cysts, and the potential for permanent hearing loss.
At your visit the health care provider will view the eardrum with an instrument called an otoscope. Because of its internal light, the otoscope gives the doctor a clear view of the eardrum. Perforated eardrums typically heal on their own in 2 to 3 months. During this time period, your specialist will probably counsel you to avoid diving and swimming and to avoid blowing your nose as much as possible. You should also avoid any extraneous medications. For holes along the edges of the eardrum, the health care provider may choose to put in a temporary patch or dam which helps guard against infection. In rare cases, surgery may be recommended.
Your health care provider may also order over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin to deal with any discomfort. The key precautions you can take to avoid ruptured eardums are to 1) avoid placing any foreign objects into your ear canal, even to clean them, and 2) deal with ear infections promptly by seeing your doctor.