When you feel the need to pop your ears because air pressure builds up in your head, what you’re really trying to do is open your eustachian tube.
Considering the discomfort caused by the occasional change in air pressure, it’s easy to imagine what it might be like if the tube stayed closed and you couldn’t force air in or out. That’s what happens when you have eustachian tube dysfunction.
Although eustachian tube dysfunction affects children more often than adults, at Broward ENT Services, we specialize in helping patients of all ages get effective treatment for their ear problem.
Causes of eustachian tube dysfunction
Your eustachian tube is a narrow duct that connects the middle ear to the back of your nose. The passageway opens when you swallow, yawn, or chew, allowing air to flow into the middle ear, and also letting mucus in the middle ear flow out. This process keeps air pressure equal and allows your eardrum to vibrate properly, which is essential for normal hearing.
Eustachian tube dysfunction occurs when the tube is blocked or doesn’t open properly. When that happens, the air pressure outside your eardrum is higher than the air pressure inside your ear. As a result, the pressure pushes your eardrum inward, and it doesn’t vibrate normally.
The most common causes of a blocked eustachian tube are:
- Common cold
- Sinus infection
- Ear infection
- Throat infection
- Allergic rhinitis (hay fever)
- Enlarged adenoids
These conditions lead to a buildup of mucus, inflammation, and swelling that blocks the tube. In some cases, the tissues lining the inside of the eustachian tube become inflamed and swollen.
Children aged 1-6 years have a higher risk for eustachian tube dysfunction for several reasons. For starters, their immature tubes are narrow, and they run horizontally instead of sloping downward and away from the middle ear. Children are also more likely to have infected and swollen adenoids.
Symptoms of eustachian tube dysfunction
When you have eustachian tube dysfunction, your hearing is diminished or muffled, and you’ll have one or more of the following ear symptoms:
- Ringing in your ear
- Pain in one or both ears
- Ticklish sensation in your ear
- Popping or crackling sounds
- Feeling of pressure or fullness in your ear
You may notice that you can hear your own voice more loudly than normal. Some patients also develop problems with balance.
Effective treatment options for eustachian tube dysfunction
Mild cases of eustachian tube dysfunction often go away on their own, especially if you can restore airflow by yawning or chewing. You could also try to blow air out of your mouth while holding your mouth and nose closed, a procedure that forces air pressure toward your ears and often opens the tube.
When your symptoms don’t go away, other effective treatment options include:
Medications to treat underlying health conditions
When your eustachian tube dysfunction is due to a cold or allergy, getting an over-the-counter decongestant or antihistamine may help clear up the problem and restore normal air flow. If those medications don’t help, an over-the-counter nasal steroid spray may reduce the inflammation.
When your symptoms persist or worsen despite self-care, we may begin your treatment with prescription-strength decongestants, antihistamines, or steroids. If we suspect allergies, we’ll recommend allergy testing, followed by immunotherapy if you test positive for an allergen.
During a balloon dilatation, we insert a catheter with a balloon into the eustachian tube. Once it’s in place, we fill it with saline and leave it in the tube for about two minutes. After the balloon is deflated and removed, the tube stays open and normal function is usually restored.
A myringotomy is a surgical procedure to create a small opening in the eardrum, and then we suction fluids out of the middle ear. It takes a few days for your eardrum to heal. If fluids or pressure builds up in your middle ear after the incision closes, you may need an ear tube or tympanostomy tube.
We first perform myringotomy, then we insert a small plastic tube into the eardrum. This keeps the middle ear ventilated for a longer period of time, which allows fluids to keep draining and also allows pressure to stay equalized. Ear tubes are often a good choice for children who have frequent ear infections, especially when their infections don’t respond to antibiotics.
When enlarged adenoids contribute to eustachian tube dysfunction, we perform surgery to remove them.
When you develop ear pain or pressure, schedule an appointment online or call Broward ENT Services.