The eardrum performs two vital functions: naturally, it vibrates when it senses sound wavesand is thus a fundamental part of hearing, but it also works as a barrier to protect the sensitive inner ear from infection. If your eardrum is fully intact, your inner ear is basically a sterile and protected environment; however when it is punctured or torn, microbes may enter and spark a serious infection called otitis media.
A ruptured eardrum (more accurately, a tympanic membrane perforation) is what happens when this important membrane develops tears or punctures. There are many ways that an eardrum can become ruptured, the commonest of which is as a result of an ear infection where the resulting buildup of fluid presses against the eardrum and makes it rip. Many people puncture their own eardrums by poking foreign objects into the ears, such as the use of cotton swabs to take out ear wax. Barotrauma is another potential cause of a punctured ear drum. When the pressure inside the ear is very different than the pressure outside the ear (lower or higher) the eardrum might not be able to withstand the pressure difference and ruptures. Scuba diving and flying are two situations where this is likely to happen. Sudden loud noises and explosions can also cause ruptured ear drums. This phenomenon is known as acoustic trauma.
The symptoms of a perforated eardrum include ear pain (including unrelenting 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. See a specialist quickly if you experience these symptoms, because if your eardrum is ruptured, timely treatment helps to discourage infection and to prevent hearing loss. What you risk by not having these symptoms addressed are serious inner ear infections and cysts, and the chance of permanent loss of hearing.
Perforated eardrums are diagnosed in a health care provider’s office using an instrument known as an otoscope, which has an internal light which allows the doctor to view the eardrum clearly. Perforated eardrums typically heal on their own in 2 to 3 months, as long as infection is prevented and as long as the person refrains from activities that could aggravate the problem, such as swimming or diving, avoiding medications outside of those recommended for the situation, and attempting to avoid blowing your nose while the healing is taking place. For rips along the edges of the eardrum, the specialist may choose to put in a temporary dam or patch which helps reduce the risk of infection. In rare cases, surgery may be suggested.
Any residual pain or discomfort can, in most cases, be addressed using over-the-counter pain medications such as aspirin or acetaminophen. The key precautions you can adopt to avoid this condition are to 1) avoid placing any objects into your ear canal, even for cleaning, and 2) deal with ear infections promptly by visiting a doctor.