Eardrums are vital, playing two very important roles in hearing. First they vibrate when sound hits them. Additionally they provide a barrier that protects the inner ear from infection. If your eardrum is fully intact, your inner ear is essentially a protected and sterile environment; but when it is torn or perforated, harmful bacteria have a way to get in and start a major infection called otitis media.

A ruptured eardrum – often called a perforated eardrum ortechnically, as a tympanic membrane perforation – is a tear or puncture in this very thin essential membrane. There are several causes of ruptured ear drums. The most common is an inner ear infection. Fluid at the site of the infection presses against the eardrum membrane, building up pressure until it rips. An additional well-known cause of ruptured eardrums are foreign objects introduced into the ears. For example, it’s possible to puncture your own eardrum with a cotton swab. Barotrauma is another possible cause of a ruptured ear drum. When the pressure outside the ear is very different than the pressure inside the ear (lower or higher) the eardrum may not be capable of withstanding the pressure difference and tears. Flying and scuba diving are a couple of situations where this is likely to happen. Head injuries or acoustic trauma (such as sudden explosions) may also tear the eardrum.

The indications of a ruptured eardrum include ear pain, fluid draining from the ear, complete or partial hearing loss in the afflicted ear, ringing in the ears, and dizziness or vertigo. A perforated ear drum should be examined and treated by a doctor. Swift attention is essential to avoid infection and hearing damage. Not treated, you risk severe inner and middle ear infections, middle ear cysts and the possibility of permanent hearing damage.

Specialists assess this condition using an otoscope, which is a tool with an internal light that allows them to see the eardrum. If your eardrum has been ruptured, typically it will heal itself within 8 to 12 weeks, but during this time period you should refrain from swimming or diving, avoid certain medications, and try to avoid blowing your nose (which puts extra pressure on the eardrum). If the rupture or hole is close to the edge of the eardrum, the specialist may help the recovery process by placing a temporary patch or dam to help protect against infection, or even propose surgical treatment.

Your specialist may also recommend over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to deal with pain. The key precautions you can take to avoid this condition are to 1) avoid putting any objects into your ears, even to clean them, and 2) take care of ear infections promptly by seeing a doctor.

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