The eustachian tubes are small tubes running between the middle ears and the upper throat, and they’re in charge of equalizing air pressure and draining fluid from the middle ear (behind the eardrum).
The eustachian tubes can become clogged and lead to pain, hearing difficulties and feelings of fullness in the ears—a condition called eustachian tube dysfunction, or ETD. ETD often clears up in a few days, but may last up to a couple weeks. Let’s look at the normal function of eustachian tubes, how this changes with ETD, and what you need to know about recognizing and treating ETD.
Normal Eustachian Tube Function
Normally, the eustachian tubes connect the middle ears to the back of the throat. They help the ears drain fluid and keep air pressure at the right levels in the ear. The tubes are closed most of the time—they open to help you chew, swallow or yawn.
When fluid or negative pressure gets stuck in the ear, pressure outside the ear can become too high. This leads to pain and sometimes issues with hearing.
ETD Symptoms and Complications
Symptoms of ETD can include:
- • Fullness in the ears
- • Pain in the ears
- • Feeling as if the ears are plugged
- • Ringing noises (known as tinnitus) or popping noises
- • Hearing problems
- • Feeling dizzy
- • Ticklish feeling in the ears
The length of symptoms depends on the initial cause. Complications of ETD in severe cases can include:
- • Risk of recurring symptoms: This is the most common complication risk, and symptoms are more likely to return if you don’t treat the underlying causes
- • Chronic otitis media: Middle ear infection
- • Otitis media with effusion, also called glue ear: This is a damage buildup in the middle ear that can cause permanent hearing damage
- • Eardrum retraction: when the eardrum is seemingly sucked back further into the canal
ETD Causes and Risk Factors
Causes of ETD include:
- • Allergies and illnesses: The most common causes of ETD, these conditions can cause the eustachian tubes to become inflamed or clogged with mucus. Sinus infection directly increases the risk of blocked eustachian tubes.
- • Altitude: Altitude via travel, hiking, plane flights or riding an elevator can cause ear issues.
Anyone can experience ETD, but some factors can increase your risk:
- • Obesity: Fatty deposits may collect around the eustachian tubes and raise risk of a blockage.
- • Smoking: Smoking can damage protective hairs in the middle ear and increase the chances of mucus sticking.
- • Allergies: Allergies may lead to more mucus and congestion, which increases risk of a blockage.
- • Age: Children are at a greater risk due to smaller eustachian tubes that can clog more easily. They also get colds and infections more often due to developing immune systems.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Diagnosis for ETD involves a physical exam where your doctor will ask about pain, hearing changes and any other symptoms. They’ll check your ear canal and passages into the nose and throat.
In most cases, ETD resolves itself without treatment. In cases where symptoms persist more than two weeks, speak to your doctor about treatment options. These might include some of the following options:
- • Home remedies: Things like chewing gum, swallowing or yawning often, breathing out with the nostrils while the mouth is closed or using a saline nasal spray. If you’re on an airplane or in any altitude-related situation, some of these same tactics can help ward off eustachian tube blockages.
- • Over-the-counter medications: If allergies are the cause of ETD, various allergy medications may help. OTC pain relievers can alleviate ear pain. Ask your doctor before using any of these medications.
- • Prescriptions: If you have an infection, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. Severe cases of ETD may require invasive treatments, including pressure equalization tubes (PETs) or the draining of the eustachian tubes through a small incision.
If you have ETD symptoms that persist more than a week or two, your doctor can recommend treatment options.
Our specialists have received extensive training and completed a variety of procedures, offering the best ENT care for our patients. As a part of the Revere Health system, our ENT doctors also have access to a variety of specialties to ensure that patients receive coordinated care.
“Blocked Eustachian Tubes – Topic Overview.” WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/tc/blocked-eustachian-tubes-topic-overview#2
“What You Should Know About Eustachian Tube Dysfunction.” Healthline.com. http://www.healthline.com/health/eustachian-tube-dysfunction#overview1