The eardrum performs two extremely important functions: clearly, it vibrates in response to sound waves, but it also works as a barrier to safeguard the hypersensitive inner ear from infection. When undamaged, the eardrum isolates the inner ear creating a sterile and clean environment. Once the ear drum is perforated, the inner ear becomes vulnerable to infection.
A ruptured or perforated eardrum (more accurately, a tympanic membrane perforation) is what occurs when this vital membrane is damaged by tears or punctures. There a variety of ways that an eardrum may become perforated, the commonest being as a result of an ear infection where the resulting buildup of fluid pushes against the eardrum until it rips. A further common reason for ruptured eardrums are foreign objects introduced into the ears. For instance, you can actually perforate your own eardrum with a cotton swab. Eardrums can also become punctured while flying or scuba diving on account of barotrauma, which happens when the barometric pressure outside the ear is different from the pressure inside the ear. Eardrums can also become ruptured as the result of head injuries or acoustic trauma such as quick loud noises or explosions.
The signs of a perforated eardrum include ear pain, fluid draining from the ear, partial or complete hearing loss in the affected ear, ringing in the ears, and dizziness or vertigo. A ruptured ear drum should be examined and treated by a doctor. Prompt attention is vital to prevent hearing damage and infection. If left untreated, you risk major inner and middle ear infections, middle ear cysts and the possibility of long term hearing loss.
Ruptured eardrums are diagnosed in a health care provider’s office using an instrument called an otoscope, which has an internal light which allows the doctor to see the eardrum clearly. Punctured eardrums typically heal by themselves in 2 to 3 months, so long as infection is avoided and as long as the person refrains from activities that could aggravate the situation, for example diving or swimming, avoiding medications other than those recommended for the condition, and trying to not blow their nose while the healing is taking place. For holes along the edges of the eardrum, the specialist may choose to put in a temporary patch or dam which helps prevent infection. In rare cases, surgery may be recommended.
Any pain can be addressed by using over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications such as aspirin or acetaminophen. Steps you can take to prevent puncturing your eardrum include not placing any foreign objects in your ears, and visiting your doctor promptly to address any ear infections.