A Ruptured Eardrum: What Is It and How to Treat It

Eardrums are very important, playing two very important roles in hearing. First they vibrate when sound waves strike them. Second they establish a barrier that safeguards the inner ear from infection. Whenever your eardrum is intact, your inner ear is basically a safe and sterile environment; but when it has been perforated or torn, microbes can get in and spark a serious infection called otitis media.

The terms perforated eardrum and ruptured eardrum are essentially the same. They both refer to a condition whose technical name is a tympanic membrane perforation where there is a puncture or tear in the very thin membrane we call the ear drum. There are various causes of ruptured ear drums. The most common is an inner ear infection. Fluid at the site of the infection pushes against the membrane, building up pressure until it finally rips. The eardrum can also be punctured as the result of inserting foreign objects into your ear, including cotton swabs or other products used in an effort to clear away ear wax at home. Barotrauma is yet another potential cause of a perforated ear drum. When the pressure inside the ear is very different than the pressure outside the ear – lower or higher – the ear drum may not be able to withstand the pressure difference and rips. Scuba diving and flying are two situations where this is likely to happen. Injuries to the head or acoustic trauma (such as sudden loud noises or explosions) can also tear the eardrum.

Indications of perforated eardrums include pain in the ear, hearing loss in the afflicted ear, vertigo or dizziness, and fluid draining from the ear. A perforated ear drum should be examined and treated by a specialist. Prompt attention is important to avoid infection and hearing damage. Not treated, you chance major inner and middle ear infections, middle ear cysts and the chance of permanent hearing damage.

Punctured eardrums are diagnosed in a doctor’s office using a tool known as an otoscope, which has an internal light that allows the doctor to see the eardrum clearly. Perforated eardrums generally heal on their own in two to three months, so long as infection is prevented and as long as the individual refrains from activities that could aggravate the problem, for example swimming or diving, avoiding medications other than those prescribed for the condition, and attempting to avoid blowing your nose while the healing is taking place. If the rupture or hole is near the edge of the eardrum, the doctor can help the healing process by inserting a temporary patch or dam to help prevent infection, or even advise surgery.

Your physician may also prescribe over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to manage pain. The most important precautions you can adopt to prevent this condition are to 1) avoid putting any objects into your ear canal, even to clean them, and 2) deal with ear infections without delay by visiting a hearing healthcare provider.

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