Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

The eardrum is a thin membrane that separates your ear canal (the part that is open to the outside) from your middle ear. The eardrum, also called the tympanic membrane, is involved in hearing. Sound waves cause your eardrum to vibrate. This begins the process of converting the sound waves into an impulse that travels to your brain, where it is recognized as sound.

The eardrum is delicate and can be torn (perforated) easily, most often by an infection of the middle ear (otitis media) but also by other types of trauma, including:

  • Inserting an object, such as a cotton swab or toothpick, too far into the ear

  • A very loud noise, such as an explosion

  • Trauma to the head, such as a skull fracture

  • A blow to the ear

  • Trauma to the ear caused by changes in air pressure (barotraumas), such as during a plane flight or scuba diving

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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