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What is Eustachian tube dysfunction?

The Eustachian tube is a small passageway that connects your throat to your middle ear. When you sneeze, swallow, or yawn, your Eustachian tubes open. This keeps air pressure and fluid from building up inside your ear. But sometimes a Eustachian tube might get plugged. This is called Eustachian tube dysfunction. When this happens, sounds may be muffled and your ear may feel full. You may also have ear pain.

Symptoms of Eustachian tube dysfunction

If you have Eustachian tube dysfunction:

  • Your ears may feel plugged or full.
  • Sounds may seem muffled.
  • You may feel a popping or clicking sensation (children may say their ear “tickles”).
  • You may have pain in one or both ears.
  • You may hear ringing in your ears (called tinnitus).
  • You may sometimes have trouble keeping your balance.

Your symptoms may get worse when you experience changes in altitude. This includes flying in an airplane, riding in elevators, driving through mountains, or diving.

What causes Eustachian tube dysfunction?

The most common cause of Eustachian tube dysfunction is when the tube gets inflamed and mucus or fluid builds up. This can be caused by a cold, the flu, a sinus infection, or allergies.

Some people are at greater risk for Eustachian tube dysfunction. They include:

  • Children. Their tubes are shorter and straighter than those of an adult. This makes it easier for germs to reach the middle ear and for fluid to become trapped there. Also, children’s immune systems are not fully developed. This makes it harder for them to fight off infections.
  • People who smoke. Smoking damages the cilia (the tiny hairs that sweep mucus from the middle ear to the back of the nose). This can allow mucus to gather in the tubes.
  • People who are obese. Fatty deposits around the tubes can lead to Eustachian tube dysfunction.

Can Eustachian tube dysfunction be prevented or avoided?

Reduce your risk of developing Eustachian tube dysfunction by treating the underlying cause of the blockage. This is usually allergies, a cold, or the flu.

Living with Eustachian tube dysfunction

Managing your symptoms when you have allergies or a cold is important. This can keep your Eustachian tubes clear and prevent an infection from forming. Home care usually takes care of any problems. This includes exercises such as swallowing or yawning. If you or your child show symptoms of severe pain in the ear, call your doctor.