The eardrum, also called the tympanic membrane, is a membrane dividing the outer ear canal and the middle ear. It functions to vibrate and conduct sounds to the middle ear bones that lie underneath it. If the eardrum ruptures or has a hole in it, it is called a ruptured eardrum or a perforated tympanic membrane.
There are many things that can cause a ruptured eardrum, one of which is a middle ear infection. Middle ear infections are extremely common in young children, and some children have recurring middle ear infections. A severe ear infection can cause pressure to build up behind the tympanic membrane as fluid and pus build up in the middle ear. If this pressure increases too much, the eardrum itself may rip open, relieving the pressure. Another cause of a perforated eardrum is injury or trauma to the ear inside of the ear canal. This can be caused by a person using a cotton swab too deeply trying to clean the ears or insertion of other foreign objects into the ear canal. Ear trauma can also be caused by pressure waves, for instance, getting hit on the ear or being too close to an explosion or a really loud sound can potentially cause a ruptured eardrum. Activities such as scuba diving or airplane flight that result in rapid altitude changes can also cause pressure disequilibrium inside of the ear and damage the eardrum.
Symptoms of a perforated eardrum include ringing or buzzing in the affected ear, ear discomfort or pain, hearing loss in the affected ear, drainage from the ear canal and dizziness. In cases of a ruptured eardrum caused by an ear infection, the pain of the earache may actually decrease after the eardrum ruptures because the pressure is relieved by the fluid being able to drain out of the middle ear.
The perforated eardrum usually heals on its own in a couple of weeks without complications. In some cases, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics in the form of ear drops so that the chances of infection are decreased. Hearing loss is a temporary problem in almost all cases of eardrum rupture; once the eardrum repairs itself, the sense of hearing returns to normal. In rare cases, the eardrum may need to be repaired with a patch at the doctor’s office or with surgery to restore normal hearing.