Ear popping sound can be due to Eustachian dysfunction, yawning and traveling at high altitudes.
Ear popping sound has been associated with the working of Eustachian tube that allows exchange of air between the middle ear and the back of the nose or the upper throat. However, firstly we need to understand the structure of the ear. One of the most delicate parts of the body, the ear is primarily made up of outer ear, middle and the inner ear. The outer ear has the ear canal, a 2.5 cm long tube that travels right up to the eardrum.
The eardrum that lies where the ear canal terminates is a small cone-shaped membrane that vibrates when sound waves passes through it. At the end of the eardrum lies the middle ear, a hollow cavity containing air. This air-filled space is connected to the Eustachian tube, a passageway that runs all the way down to the throat.
The main task of the Eustachian tube is to ensure that the air pressure in the middle ear and the ear canal that is connected to the environment is same. This equalizes air pressure on both sides of the eardrum, which is necessary for the eardrum to function correctly. As aforementioned, when the ear pops, it is due to the Eustachian tube that opens and closes whenever needed. It is discussed below:
When we chew, swallow or yawn, the Eustachian tube opens, leading to that popping sound. Now the question is what causes that Eustachian tube to open. Opening the jaw or swallowing allows a small amount of air to gain access to the middle air. In order to maintain same air pressure between the middle ear and the outside environment, the Eustachian tube has to get rid of this small volume of air. As a result, it open to make way for the trapped air to enter the back of the nose and is eventually passed on to the environment. Thus, the clicking sound that we hear while yawning or chewing, results from opening of the Eustachian tube and so there is nothing to worry about.
Change in Altitude
A change in altitude that normally occurs when traveling in an elevator or airplane can also lead to frequent ear popping noise. With increase in altitude, the atmospheric pressure also tends to dip. It is observed that higher the altitude, lower will be the atmospheric pressure. This significant difference in pressure levels in the air at the middle ear and the atmosphere, forces the Eustachian tube to open in order to equalize the pressure.
Also, when swimming under water, the air pressure in the middle ear is lower than the atmospheric pressure. As we go deep in the ocean, the water pressure increases. Thus, the ear canal faces the additional burden of water pressure along with air pressure. The difference in pressure on both sides of the eardrum and middle ear results in opening of the Eustachian tube and hence the popping noise.
Eustachian Tube Dysfunction
If the Eustachian tube is not functioning properly, then it becomes difficult to maintain air pressure on both sides of the eardrum. This can happen due to ear problems like patulous, in which the Eustachian tube remains chronically open. Eustachian tube dysfunction can also occur when it is partially or completely obstructed with some bodily fluids and mucus. This usually happens during common cold or a sinus infection in which the mucus enters the Eustachian tube and the middle ear.
Thus, while talking, eating or blowing the nose, the trapped fluids may drain from the Eustachian tube, which may also cause a popping sound. Even the movement of mucus in the middle ear can give rise to crackling or popping noise in the ear. This is the reason why people suffering from infection of the upper respiratory tract may constantly or frequently experience ear popping.
Ear popping during yawning or swallowing is normal and therefore can be neglected. However, if it is accompanied by ear pain, one should not take it lightly and immediately seek medical advice as it might be signaling a damaged or perforated eardrum. One of the best ways to unblock the Eustachian tube is to chew gum, yawn and suck a candy. All these activities help to open up the Eustachian tube, thereby allowing to expel the fluid and relieve the ear pressure.