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The eardrum performs two very important functions: clearly, it vibrates in response to sound waves, but additionally it works as a barrier to guard the sensitive inner ear from infection. Whenever your eardrum is fully intact, your inner ear is basically a sterile and safe environment; however when it is torn or perforated, microbes can enter and start a major infection generally known as otitis media.

The phrases ruptured eardrum and perforated eardrum are essentially the same. They both refer to a problem whose technical name is a tympanic membrane perforation in which there is a puncture or tear in the thin membrane we know as the ear drum. A punctured eardrum can happen from many causes, the most common of which is an ear infection, which in turn causes fluid to push up against the membrane and ultimately cause it to rip. Lots of people puncture their own eardrums by poking foreign objects into the ears, for example the use of Q-tips to remove ear wax. Eardrums can also become perforated due to flying or scuba diving on account of barotrauma, which occurs when the barometric pressure inside the ear is different from the pressure outside the ear. Injuries to the head or acoustic trauma (such as sudden explosions) can also tear the eardrum.

The symptoms of a punctured eardrum include ear pain (including prolonged ear pain that stops suddenly, fluid draining from the ear, complete or partial hearing loss in the affected ear, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and vertigo or dizziness. A punctured ear drum should be examined and cared for by a specialist. Prompt attention is vital to reduce the risk of hearing damage and infection. Untreated, a perforated eardrum can lead to middle and inner ear infections, middle ear cysts, and permanent loss of hearing.

Specialists assess this condition using an otoscope, which is a tool with an internal light that allows them to see the eardrum. If your eardrum has been punctured, typically it will heal on its own within 8 to 12 weeks, but during this time period you should avoid swimming or diving, avoid certain medications, and attempt to avoid blowing your nose (which exerts extra pressure on the eardrum). If the rupture or hole is near the edge of the eardrum, the doctor may help the recovery process by inserting a temporary dam or patch to help prevent infection, or even suggest surgery.

Your specialist may also recommend over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications such as acetaminophen or aspirin to deal with any discomfort. Not every punctured eardrum can be averted, but there are things you can do to decrease your chances. Always get timely treatment for any ear infections and do not put any foreign objects into your ear (even for cleaning).