The eardrum serves two very important functions: naturally, it vibrates when it senses sound wavesand is thus an essential part of hearing, but it also functions as a barrier to protect the inner ear from infection. When your eardrum is intact, your inner ear is essentially a protected and sterile place; however when it is torn or perforated, bacteria have a way to get in and cause a major infection called otitis media.
A ruptured eardrum – often called a perforated eardrum or, as a tympanic membrane perforation – is a puncture or tear in this thin important membrane. A perforated eardrum has many possible causes, the most common of which is an ear infection, which causes fluid to push against the membrane and ultimately cause it to tear. Another common reason for punctured eardrums are foreign objects introduced into the ears. For instance, it’s possible to puncture your own eardrum with a Q-tip. Eardrums can also become ruptured as a result of flying or scuba diving due to barotrauma, which occurs when the barometric pressure outside the ear is different from the pressure inside the ear. Sudden loud noises and explosions can also cause perforated ear drums. This is known as acoustic trauma.
The symptoms of a ruptured eardrum include ear pain, fluid draining from the ear, partial or complete hearing loss in the affected ear, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and dizziness or vertigo. Consult a specialist immediately if you encounter these symptoms, because if your eardrum has become perforated, timely treatment helps to prevent infection and to reduce the risk of hearing loss. What you risk by not having these symptoms treated are severe inner ear infections and cysts, and the chance of permanent hearing loss.
Punctured eardrums are diagnosed in a doctor’s office using a tool called an otoscope, which has an internal light which allows the specialist to view the eardrum clearly. Punctured eardrums generally heal on their own in two to three months, so long as infection is prevented and so long as the individual refrains from activities that could worsen the situation, for example swimming or diving, avoiding medications other than those recommended for the situation, and attempting to avoid blowing your nose while the healing is taking place. If the puncture or hole is near the edge of the eardrum, the health care provider can help the recovery process by inserting a temporary patch or dam to help reduce the risk of infection, or even advise surgery.
Your specialist may also order over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to cope with any discomfort. Steps you can take to avoid puncturing your eardrum include not putting any objects in your ears, and seeing your doctor promptly to take care of any ear infections.