Body & Fitness

What you should know about the eardrum

The bits of your body you don't notice until they go wrong. This week: the eardrum.

The eardrum is a thin, cone-shaped membrane – about 10mm wide – at the base of the ear canal. It separates the external ear (the skin and cartilage outside the head) from the middle and inner ear (which performs the mechanics of hearing). The eardrum protects the delicate mechanism of the middle ear from water and bacteria that might enter through the outer ear, and also plays a vital role in our ability to hear sound.

Because it is so thin and delicate, the eardrum is vulnerable to perforation caused by a loud noise (such as an explosion), injury (poking a cotton bud too far in or sudden changes in air pressure), and infection (a build-up of pus in the middle ear can burst through the eardrum).

Perforations usually heal within two months (antibiotics may be prescribed if caused by infection), but if it is a serious wound or doesn’t heal, it can increase the risk of further infections and hearing loss.

Protect your eardrums by avoiding loud noises; blowing your nose often when you have a cold (to prevent a build-up of mucus blocking your eustachian tube in the middle ear) and drying your ears after swimming (bacteria can grow in warm, damp conditions). And of course, never poke anything in your ear canal at the risk of rupturing the eardrum.

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