The Eustachian tubes are small, narrow passageways which connect the throat to the middle ear. Whenever you swallow, yawn or sneeze, these tubes open. This prevents fluid and air pressure from building up within the ear. However, sometimes a Eustachian tube can become plugged. This is known as Eustachian tube dysfunction. When this occurs, things can sound muffled. This sensation of muffled hearing can also be accompanied by a feeling of fullness in the ear. You might also experience ear pain.
Eustachian tube dysfunction symptoms
If you have Eustachian tube dysfunction, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
• A popping or clocking sensation in the ear (children might describe this as a “tickling” feeling in the ear)
• Ears feel full or plugged
• Sounds are muffled
• Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
• Balance issues (you may feel like you are rocking on a boat)
• Pain in one or both ears
Symptoms of Eustachian tube dysfunction are often affected during changes in altitude. For example, if you fly on an airplane, ride in an elevator, go deep-sea diving or drive through mountains, you may find that your symptoms change for the worse.
Causes of Eustachian tube dysfunction
Eustachian tube dysfunction is commonly caused by an inflammation of the tube. This causes mucus and fluid to build up. However, a build-up of fluid could also be associated with a cold, flu, allergy or sinus infection.
Certain groups of people are more at risk of Eustachian tube dysfunction than others. These include:
Children’s Eustachian tubes are straighter and shorter than those of fully-grown adults. This makes it much easier for germs and bacteria to reach the middle ear. It also makes it easier for fluid to become trapped in the middle ear. Children’s immune systems are not fully developed, which makes it harder for them to fight infections off.
Smoking is known to damage the tiny hairs (cilia) which sweep mucus away from the middle ear and towards the back of the nose. When these hairs are compromised, mucus can gather in the Eustachian tubes more easily.
- Obese people
Those who are overweight are more likely to have fatty deposits around the Eustachian tubes. This excess pressure on the tubes can lead to dysfunction.
How Eustachian tube dysfunction is diagnosed
When you make an appointment with your doctor, they will initially talk to you about your symptoms before examining you. During the examination, your doctor will look at your eardrums, your ear canals, the back of your throat and your nasal passages.
Avoiding Eustachian tube dysfunction
If you can identify the underlying cause of the blockage of your Eustachian tubes, treating it could relieve symptoms. The most common causes are allergies, colds and/or flu.
Treatment for Eustachian tube dysfunction
Eustachian tube dysfunction symptoms usually disappear without the need for treatment. Before opting for treatment, you may want to try some exercises to open the tubes. Try repeatedly swallowing, yawning or chewing gum to try and flush any blockages. You may also like to try relieving a full ear by taking a large deep breath, holding your nostrils shut and attempting to blow through your nose with your mouth shut.
Eustachian tube dysfunction can be more difficult to diagnose in babies. If you have a baby or toddler and you think they may have Eustachian tube dysfunction, try feeding them. You may also want to try giving them a pacifier, as this encourages the swallow reflex which could help to clear blockages.
If these strategies are unsuccessful, a specialist may suggest one or more of the following:
• Using a decongestant to reduce swelling of the tubes.
• Using an antihistamine to reduce allergic responses.
• Making a very small incision in the eardrum before suctioning the fluid from the inner ear. This provides the lining of the Eustachian tube with time to shrink while the eardrum heals (this can take up to three days).
• Implanting tubes in the eardrums which allow built-up fluid to drain from the middle ear.
• Using a balloon dilation system to insert a medical balloon into the Eustachian tube via the nasal cavity. When inserted, the balloon is then inflated to create a pathway for mucus and air to flow through the tube. This helps it to function properly.
Find out more
If you think you may have Eustachian tube dysfunction or would like to know more about the condition, why not book an appointment with our hearing specialists today?