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

Eardrums are important, playing two vitally important roles in hearing. First of all they vibrate in response to sound. Additionally they establish a barrier that shields the inner ear from infection. Your inner ear is basically a sterile, safe place when your eardrum is undamaged, but if it is perforated or torn, microbes are free to enter, and may cause severe infections.

The terms ruptured eardrum and perforated eardrum mean the same thing. They both describe a problem whose medical name is a tympanic membrane perforation where there is a tear or puncture in the very thin membrane we call the eardrum. A perforated eardrum has many possible causes, the commonest of which is an ear infection, which causes fluid to push up against the membrane and ultimately cause it to rip. A further common reason for perforated eardrums are foreign objects inserted into the ears. For example, you can actually rupture your own eardrum with a Q-tip. Eardrums can also become punctured as a result of flying or scuba diving due to barotrauma, which happens when the barometric pressure inside the ear is different from the pressure outside the ear. Head injuries or acoustic trauma (such as exposure to sudden loud noises or explosions) may also puncture the eardrum.

The symptoms of a ruptured 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. If you experience any of these warning signs, see a hearing health provider, because if the eardrum is ruptured, immediate and appropriate treatment is important to avoid infection and hearing damage. What you risk by not having these symptoms treated are severe inner ear infections and cysts, and the chance of permanent loss of hearing.

Doctors assess this condition using an otoscope, which is a tool with an internal light which enables them to see the eardrum. Ruptured eardrums normally heal on their own in 2 to 3 months. During this time, your specialist will most likely counsel you to avoid diving and swimming and to avoid blowing your nose if possible. It’s also wise to avoid any non-essential medications. If the tear is very large or is located near one of its edges, the doctor may insert a temporary patch or dam to reduce the risk of infection; in very rare cases, surgical treatment may be required.

Pain from a punctured eardrum is typically addressed with over-the-counter (OTC) pain killers such as acetaminophen or aspirin. Not every ruptured eardrum can be prevented, but there are things you can do to reduce your chances. Always get timely treatment for any ear infections and do not put any objects into your ear canal (even for cleaning).