Also known as a punctured eardrum, a perforated eardrum is a break or hole in the eardrum, most commonly caused by an ear infection, physical damage, or a loud noise.
Looking and functioning like the covering on a drum, the eardrum, or tympanic membrane, protects the delicate middle and inner ear from harmful elements. Rupturing this delicate membrane can lead to pain, hearing loss, tinnitus, and/or ear drainage. While not always preventable, trauma-induced instances can be avoided by not inserting foreign objects into the ear canal.
While they do occur in adults, ear infections with resultant eardrum perforations occur more frequently in children. An ear infection can cause fluid to build up in the middle ear space, creating pressure on the eardrum and leading to rupture.
Other causes of a ruptured eardrum may include:
- Loud noise(s) close to the ear, such as an explosion
- Improper use of foreign objects in the ear, such as a cotton swab
- Extreme variance in air pressure; this can happen when engaging in activities like flying or scuba diving — anytime you’re traveling between higher and lower altitudes
- Head or ear trauma, like a slap or “boxing” of the ears
When the rupture of an eardrum occurs, you may experience:
- Ear pain
- Fluid drainage from the affected area
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Mild to severe hearing loss in the involved ear
When you visit your doctor for possible eardrum rupture, an instrument called an otoscope will be used to inspect your ear canal. You will be evaluated to determine if your eardrum is intact or if a rupture is evident. Your recovery time may be variable, as are treatment options.
Generally, your eardrum will heal on its own in two to three months. The following may be suggested to help with discomfort and healing:
- Avoid changes in air pressure, such as via swimming or blowing your nose
- Use over-the-counter pain killers, like aspirin
- Gently absorb drainage in the affected ear using cotton balls
In more severe cases, surgery or a patch over the eardrum may be required.