What are the eustachian tubes, and how do they get blocked?
The eustachian (say "you-STAY-shee-un") tubes connect the middle ears to the back of the throat. The tubes help the ears drain fluid. They also keep air pressure in the ears at the right level.
When you swallow or yawn, the tubes open briefly to let air in to make the pressure in the middle ears equal to the pressure outside of the ears. Sometimes fluid or negative pressure gets stuck in the middle ear. The pressure outside the ear gets too high. This causes ear pain and sometimes trouble hearing.
Swelling from a cold, allergies, or a sinus infection can keep the eustachian tubes from opening. This leads to pressure changes. Fluid may collect in the middle ear. The pressure and fluid can cause pain. You also can have ear pain from changes in pressure while you are flying in an airplane, driving up or down mountains, or scuba diving. Fluid in the ear can lead to an infection (acute otitis media). Young children have a high risk of ear infections, because their eustachian tubes are shorter and more easily blocked than the tubes in older children and adults.
What are the symptoms?
Blocked eustachian tubes can cause several symptoms, including:
Ears that hurt and feel full.
Ringing or popping noises in your ears.
Feeling a little dizzy.
How are blocked tubes diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms. He or she will look in your ears. The doctor also may check how well you hear.
How are they treated?
Blocked eustachian tubes often get better on their own. You may be able to open the blocked tubes with a simple exercise. Close your mouth, hold your nose, and gently blow as if you are blowing your nose. Yawning and chewing gum also may help. You may hear or feel a "pop" when the tubes open to make the pressure equal between the inside and outside of your ears.
If you can't open the tubes, your doctor may suggest an over-the-counter pain medicine. If you have allergies, the doctor may prescribe a steroid medicine that you spray into your nose. Decongestants that you take by mouth or spray into your nose may be helpful. You may need antibiotics if you have an ear infection.
A warm washcloth or a heating pad set on low can help with ear pain. Put a cloth between the heating pad and your skin so you don't burn your skin. Do not use a heating pad with children.
In some cases, people need surgery for a blocked eustachian tube. The doctor makes a small cut in the eardrum to drain fluid and to make the pressure the same inside and outside the ear. Sometimes the doctor will put a small tube in the eardrum. The tube will fall out over time.
How can you keep your eustachian tubes from getting blocked?
If you have allergies, talk to your doctor about how to treat them so your sinuses stay clear and your eustachian tubes stay open.
When you are in an airplane, you can chew gum, yawn, or drink liquids during takeoff and landing. Try the exercise where you gently blow while holding your nose shut.
Pai S, Parikh SR (2012). Otitis media. In AK Lalwani, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, 3rd ed., pp. 674-681. New York: McGraw-Hill.
ByHealthwise Staff Primary Medical ReviewerSusan C. Kim, MD - Pediatrics E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine Specialist Medical ReviewerCharles M. Myer III, MD - Pediatrics, Otolaryngology