A ruptured eardrum, like a clap of thunder, can happen suddenly. You may feel a sharp pain in your ear, or an earache that you've had for a while suddenly goes away. It's also possible that you may not have any sign that your eardrum has ruptured.
A ruptured eardrum -- also known as a perforated eardrum or a tympanic membrane perforation -- can lead to complications such as middle ear infections and hearing loss. It may also require surgery to repair the damage to the eardrum. But typically, especially if you protect your ear, a ruptured eardrum will heal on its own without treatment within a couple of months.
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A ruptured eardrum is a tear in the thin membrane that separates your outer ear from your inner ear. That membrane, known as the tympanic membrane, is made of tissue that resembles skin.
The eardrum serves two important functions in your ear. It senses vibrating sound waves and converts the vibration into nerve impulses that convey the sound to your brain. It also protects the middle ear from bacteria as well as water and foreign objects. Normally, the middle ear is sterile. But when the eardrum is ruptured, bacteria can get into the middle ear and cause an infection known as otitis media.
What Causes a Ruptured Eardrum?
A number of things can cause the eardrum to rupture; one of the most common causes is an ear infection. When the middle ear is infected, pressure builds up and pushes against the eardrum. When the pressure gets too great, it can cause the eardrum to perforate. When that happens, you may suddenly notice that the pain and pressure you've felt from the infection suddenly stops and pus drains from the ear.
Another common cause of a ruptured eardrum is poking the eardrum with a foreign object, such as a cotton-tipped swab or a bobby pin that's being used to clean wax out of the ear canal. Sometimes children can puncture their own eardrum by putting objects such as a stick or a small toy in their ear.
Some ruptured eardrums result from what's known as barotrauma. This happens when the pressure inside the ear and the pressure outside the ear are not equal. That can happen, for example, when an airplane changes altitude, causing the air pressure in the cabin to drop or rise. The change in pressure is also a common problem for scuba divers.
A head injury or an ear slap can cause the eardrum to rupture. So can an acoustic trauma caused by a sudden loud noise, such as an explosion or a sudden blast of loud music.