The eardrum is required for hearing because it detects sound waves and communicates the vibrations to the brain, but it also works as a barrier to isolate the inner ear and keep it free from infection. While undamaged, the eardrum seals off the inner ear resulting in a sterile and clean environment. Once the ear drum is punctured, the inner ear becomes vulnerable to bacterial infections.

A perforated or ruptured eardrum (in medical language, a tympanic membrane perforation) is what occurs when this vital membrane develops punctures or tears. A punctured eardrum can happen as the result of many causes, the commonest of which is an ear infection, which causes fluid to press against the eardrum membrane and ultimately cause it to split. An additional common reason for punctured eardrums are foreign objects inserted into the ears. For instance, you can actually rupture your own eardrum with a Q-tip. An additional frequent root cause is barotrauma – the circumstance that occurs when the barometric pressure inside the ear is different from the pressure outside the ear – which may happen on airplane flights or while scuba diving. Eardrums can also become ruptured due to head injuries or acoustic trauma such as sudden 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, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and vertigo or dizziness. A perforated ear drum should be evaluated and cared for by a specialist. Swift attention is essential to avoid infection and hearing damage. What you chance by not having these symptoms addressed are serious inner ear infections and cysts, and the possibility of permanent loss of hearing.

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. If your eardrum has been punctured, in most cases it will heal on its own within eight to 12 weeks, but during this time period you should refrain from diving or swimming, 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 doctor can help the recovery process by inserting a temporary patch or dam to help protect against infection, or even propose surgical treatment.

Your doctor may also order over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin to cope with any discomfort. Not every punctured eardrum can be prevented, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. Always get immediate treatment for any ear infections and do not insert any objects into your ear (even for cleaning).