Eustachian tubes are a pair of thin auditory tubes. One end of this tube lies at the back of the throat and the other end is up in the middle part of the ears. These tubes are quite small in size. In adults, the length of the Eustachian tube is hardly about 35 mm and its diameter is 3 mm. In infants and small children, it is even smaller and is almost horizontally placed. This tube carries out two of the most important functions. It equalizes the middle ear pressure with the outside pressure and thus enables us to hear. Secondly, it drains out the fluid or mucus accumulated in the middle ear into the back of the throat. If this fluid is trapped inside the ear canal, then it can cause blockage or ear infection.
The tissues that form the lining of the Eustachian tube is the same which forms the lining of the upper respiratory tract. Therefore, the tube may get clogged up due to exposure to the same irritants that cause inflammation in the nasal passage. They include cold and flu virus, bacteria that causes upper respiratory infection, allergens, etc. Sudden change in ear pressure due to high altitude is another key cause of Eustachian tube blockage. It may happen while flying in an airplane, scuba diving or driving up or down high mountains. An enlarged adenoid or tonsil near the opening of the Eustachian tube can also block it.
The blockage in the Eustachian tube can be partial or complete. In both the conditions, the tube cannot function normally. As a result, several symptoms show up. Some of them are related to hearing problems while others are not.
A few key symptoms are discussed here:
- Ear pain occurs intermittently. Sometimes, it is just a dull pain and at other times, it hurts a lot and gives a sharp stabbing sensation. At a high altitude, the pain is triggered when the surrounding air pressure changes suddenly.
- Popping noises are felt inside the ears. Some call it as clicking or ringing sound too. Children often describe it as a tickling sensation in the ear. Actually, partial or complete blockage in the Eustachian tube leads to fall in the air pressure within the ear. This creates a vacuum due to which strange sounds can be heard. While yawning or chewing, such sounds become more prominent.
- Stuffiness or heaviness inside the ear is another common symptom of blocked Eustachian tube. Many people complain that this heavy feeling intensifies further when they lie down and instead, feel better after getting up.
- Hearing problems are experienced due to blockage in the Eustachian tube, which makes it difficult to hear the sounds around you clearly. As long as ringing sound or heaviness in ears is felt, you will face the problem of muffled hearing.
- Dizziness is another common symptom. The inner part of the ear plays a vital role in maintaining the body balance. A heavy pressure within the ear can make you feel that you are about to fall down.
- If the cause behind the blockage is upper respiratory infection or allergic reaction, then a different set of symptoms accompany the above mentioned symptoms. They are fever, headache, nasal congestion, sore throat, fatigue, etc.
A blocked Eustachian tube caused by pressure changes due to elevation does not require any treatment. Yawning or chewing are effective techniques that can open up the tubes by equalizing the inner and outer pressure. Or else, stop breathing by closing the nose and mouth and then blow your nose. When it is triggered by some other causes, then that particular problem has to be treated and the Eustachian tubes will open up on its own. A bacterial infection in the upper respiratory tract is treated with antibiotics, while inflammation in the nasal passage is brought down with the help of steroid medicines. A middle ear infection caused due to fluid build up in the ear canal is cured with suitable antibiotic oral medicines along with ear drops. During the treatment, the ear pain can be temporarily relieved by warm compression using a washcloth dipped in warm water.
Sometimes, blocked Eustachian tube symptoms are severe and you think that you have lost your hearing ability permanently and cannot hear anymore. Here, I would like to make a mention that blockage in the Eustachian tube does not cause any permanent damage to the hearing mechanism. You can hear normally as soon as the tube opens up.