DEAR DOCTOR K: I have a perforated eardrum caused by an ear infection. How will it be treated? Will my hearing be permanently affected?
DEAR READER: Your eardrum is a thin membrane involved in hearing. It separates your ear canal (the part that is open to the outside) from your middle ear.
The eardrum is delicate – and it has to be. Sound waves that enter your ear move the eardrum, which begins the process that allows you to hear. If it weren’t thin and delicate, the eardrum wouldn’t vibrate so sensitively when sound waves hit it.
But because it is thin and delicate, it can be torn (perforated) easily. As in your case, it is most often torn by an ear infection. But other types of trauma, including a very loud noise, or even a cotton swab inserted into the ear during cleaning, can also damage it.
If the tear is small, your doctor may allow it to heal on its own. Most perforated eardrums heal in a few weeks to two months.
Exposure to water or further trauma can slow the healing. Use cotton balls covered with Vaseline to protect your eardrum from water during showers or baths. Also avoid blowing your nose: It increases pressure in your ear, and that can disrupt healing. If your ear gets infected during the healing phase, the tear is less likely to close on its own.
Ear, nose and throat doctors sometimes patch eardrum tears in their office. The doctor places a thin paper patch over the eardrum, along with a chemical that encourages the eardrum to heal.
If your eardrum has not healed after two months, your doctor may recommend tympanoplasty. In this procedure, the surgeon takes tissue from elsewhere in your body and uses it to close the hole or to fashion a new eardrum.
Hearing loss from a perforated eardrum is usually temporary. However, some people do permanently lose some level of hearing.