The Eustachian tube is a thin tube that connects the middle ear to the end of the nose and the topmost part of the throat (pharynx). The purpose of the tube is to keep the air pressure on both sides of the eardrum equal, this helps the eardrum to vibrate which is essential to hear properly. Cells in the middle ear absorb air and hence fresh air is needed from time to time. This tube is closed, it opens only during certain activities like yawning and swallowing. During this opening, air flows to the middle ear and any mucus that may be there, flows out. However, sometimes the Eustachian tube gets blocked, and the air pressure in the middle ear reduces.
Causes of Eustachian Tube Dysfunction
- The most common cause of ETD is inflammation and swelling of the tube; this happens during cold or other ear, throat or sinus infections.
- Allergies rhinitis and hay fever, also cause extra mucus in and around the tube.
- ETD also happens when the middle ear fills with a glue like substance, this is common in children and usually clears on its own.
Symptoms of Eustachian Tube Dysfunction
When the Eustachian tube gets blocked, several symptoms show up.
- The main symptom of ETD is hearing problems i.e., you may have difficulty in hearing clearly.
- Ears may feel stuffed or clogged. There will be an uncomfortable feeling of fullness in the ear. This tends to be more in a lying down position.
- Pain or discomfort is felt in one or both ears, as the eardrum is stretched.
- A ringing sound maybe heard in the ear. This condition is called tinnitus. It can be a ringing, humming, whistling, clicking or a buzzing sound.
- You may have trouble keeping your balance, often resulting in dizziness. This is because of heavy pressure within the ear.
- There may be clicking or popping sensations in the ear, as the air pressure within the ear decreases due to blockage. A vacuum is created, which results in these unusual sounds.
- There can also be fever in case of upper respiratory tract infections. In addition, sore throat, nasal congestion and headache may be experienced.
All the above mentioned symptoms increase with a sudden change in altitude. This is because there is a sudden change in air pressure, which would normally have been equalized across the eardrum by the tube. However, due to ETD, the tube does not open, and the eardrum is pushed inside, resulting in fullness of the ear, dull hearing and pain.
Thus, driving at heights, diving in water, using elevators and flying can worsen such symptoms. The duration of these symptoms differ, it can last anywhere from a few hours to several weeks or even more. Usually, when caused by a common cold, the symptoms go within a few days. During this period, one may experience clicking sensation in the ear, the dulled hearing may come and go for some time, before being restored.
Treatment of Eustachian Tube Dysfunction
Usually ETD lasts for some time and subsides on its own. In case symptoms remain for a prolonged period, the following treatments can be used. The basic idea is to try to open the Eustachian tube to help in equalization of air pressure. In case of allergies, doctors may recommend antihistamine medications.
Decongestant sprays or drops may also be advised to take care of nasal congestion, which will help open the tube. The easiest methods that one can try is to yawn or chew a gum; the movement of muscles in the jaw may help open the tube. Another method that you can try is close your mouth and nose, and then blow out while your mouth is closed, this will build up air pressure and open the tube.
If you experience one or more of the above symptoms, try the simple treatments suggested above, they will help relieve mild discomfort. In case the pain does not subside, consult an ENT specialist immediately.