The eardrum is vital for hearing because it vibrates in response to sound waves and transmits the vibrations to the brain, but in addition it functions as a shield to seal off the inner ear and keep infection free. While undamaged, the eardrum isolates the inner ear resulting in a clean and sterile environment. When the ear drum is ruptured or torn, the inner ear is left susceptible to infection.
A perforated or ruptured eardrum (technically, a tympanic membrane perforation) is what occurs when this essential membrane develops punctures or tears. There are numerous ways that an eardrum may become perforated, the most common of which is due to an ear infection where the buildup of fluid pushes against the eardrum until it rips. The eardrum can also be perforated as the result of poking objects into your ear, such as Q-tips or other objects used in an ill-informed attempt to remove ear wax at home. Eardrums can also become ruptured as a result of scuba diving or flying on account of barotrauma, which happens when the barometric pressure outside the ear is different from the pressure inside the ear. Injuries to the head or acoustic trauma (such as sudden loud noises or explosions) may also puncture the eardrum.
The indications of a perforated eardrum include ear pain (including prolonged ear pain that stops suddenly, fluid draining from the ear, complete or partial hearing loss in the afflicted ear, ringing in the ears, and vertigo or dizziness. A ruptured ear drum should be evaluated and treated by a specialist. Timely attention is essential to reduce the risk of infection and hearing damage. What you chance by not having these symptoms treated are major inner ear infections and cysts, and the possibility of permanent loss of hearing.
At your appointment the health care provider will look at the eardrum with an instrument called an otoscope. With its internal light, the otoscope gives the specialist a clear look at the eardrum. Ruptured eardrums generally heal on their own in 8 to 12 weeks. During this time period, your specialist will probably advise you to avoid diving and swimming and to avoid blowing your nose if possible. It’s also wise to avoid any non-essential medications. If the puncture or tear is near the edge of the eardrum, the specialist may help the healing process by placing a temporary dam or patch to help prevent infection, or even advise surgery.
Your specialist may also recommend over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to manage pain. Measures you could take to prevent a punctured eardrum include not putting any objects in your ears, and visiting a specialist quickly to deal with any ear infections.