The eardrum serves two extremely important functions: naturally, it vibrates in response to sound wavesand is thus a fundamental part of hearing, but it also functions as a barrier to guard the hypersensitive inner ear from infection. While intact, the eardrum isolates the inner ear setting up a sterile environment. If the ear drum is punctured or torn, the inner ear becomes vulnerable to infection.
A perforated or ruptured eardrum (in medical language, a tympanic membrane perforation) is what occurs when this important membrane is damaged by punctures or tears. There are numerous ways that an eardrum may become ruptured, the commonest being an ear infection where the fluid buildup presses up against the eardrum until it tears. An additional well-known cause of punctured eardrums are foreign objects introduced into the ears. For example, you can actually perforate your own eardrum with a cotton swab. Eardrums can also become punctured due to scuba diving or flying 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 ruptured ear drums. This phenomenon is known as acoustic trauma.
Symptoms of ruptured eardrums include pain in the ear (including persistent pain that suddenly stops), hearing loss in the afflicted ear, dizziness or vertigo, 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 perforated, prompt and appropriate treatment is essential to avoid infection and hearing damage. Untreated, a ruptured eardrum can lead to middle and inner ear infections, middle ear cysts (cholesteatoma), and permanent hearing loss.
At your appointment the health care provider will view the eardrum through an instrument called an otoscope. Because of its internal light, the otoscope gives the specialist a clear look at the eardrum. Perforated eardrums usually heal by themselves in two to three months, so long as infection is avoided and so long as the person avoids activities that could irritate the situation, such as swimming or diving, avoiding medications other than those prescribed for the situation, and trying to avoid blowing your nose while the healing is taking place. If the tear is very large or is located near one of its edges, the specialist may put in a short-term patch or dam to prevent infection; in rare cases, surgical treatment may be necessary.
Your health care provider may also prescribe over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications such as acetaminophen or aspirin to cope with any discomfort. Steps you can take to prevent a punctured eardrum include not inserting any foreign objects in your ears, and visiting a doctor promptly to deal with any ear infections.