Between your outer ear and middle ear is a thin membrane called the tympanic membrane, or eardrum. Its role is to transmit sound from the outer ear, the portion you see, to the middle ear. When sound waves move into the ear from the outside, it causes the eardrum to vibrate. These vibrations are picked up by bones in the middle ear and a sequence of events begins that carries sound information to the brain to be interpreted.
The eardrum plays an important role in sound transmission. Despite being thin, the tympanic membrane is tough and flexible but not immune to damage. In some situations, the eardrum can tear or rupture. With a significant rupture or tear, hearing is reduced. Plus, the risk for a middle ear infection increases since the membrane also helps keep bacteria out of the middle ear.
One of the most common ways eardrums rupture is due to trauma. For example, people sometimes rupture this thin membrane when they stick something into their ear to clean it. Infections can also weaken the eardrum and increase the risk of a tear or rupture. Another time an eardrum can rupture is with sudden changes in pressure, as when descending quickly in altitude in a plane or scuba diving.
You might wonder whether loud noises can rupture an eardrum. A sudden very loud noise can cause an eardrum to tear or rupture. The noise intensity to rupture an eardrum would have to be very loud, usually 165 decibels or more. This would correspond to the sound intensity of a gunshot at close range, fireworks or extremely loud music. Although the eardrum will heal, damage to the inner ear is often permanent. Some people who suffer inner ear damage due to sudden, intense noise exposure also suffer from ongoing tinnitus or ringing of the ears.
Protect your ears when you might be exposed to loud noises – it could save your hearing.