- Who Gets Them?
- Side Effects
- Go Away Without Treatment?
- Ear Infection Causes
- Ear Infection Signs and Symptoms
- Ear Infection Diagnosis
- Ear Infection Treatment
What is a blocked eustachian tube?
Eustachian tubes are inside the ears and connect the middle ear to the back of the nose. They help the ears drain fluid, stabilize air pressure inside the ear, and keep germs out.
Eustachian tubes connect the middle ear to the throat. When you yawn or swallow, the tubes open to match the pressure inside the ears to the pressure outside. Sometimes fluid or pressure can get stuck in the ear or swelling can occur, which blocks the tubes. The pressure outside the tubes gets too high and causes pain.
Symptoms of blocked eustachian tubes
Blocked eustachian tube symptoms include:
Small children may repeatedly pull or rub their ears.
Causes of blocked eustachian tubes
Sinus infections, colds, and allergies can cause swelling in the eustachian tubes. This stops the tubes from opening, which can lead to fluid buildup in the ear. This may cause ear pain, a plugged feeling, or an ear infection.
Air pressure in the ear may also change while scuba diving, flying on airplanes, or driving up or down a mountain.
Other conditions may cause blocked eustachian tubes, including:
Who can get blocked eustachian tubes?
Anyone can get a blocked eustachian tube. These are often caused by swelling and fluid buildup from a common cold or allergies. People who scuba dive or fly in airplanes may also have a higher chance of experiencing blocked eustachian tubes. A quick change in pressure can cause the tube to close up.
Children are most likely to have blocked eustachian tubes. Their tubes are shorter and more easily blocked.
Tests for blocked eustachian tubes
Your doctor will do a physical exam to check for symptoms of blocked eustachian tubes. They will look for swelling and redness in your ears as well as your throat. They may also look for swollen adenoids, check your temperature, and ask about other symptoms like pain and pressure.
If you have chronically blocked eustachian tubes, your doctor may test your hearing, or look for underlying causes.
Treatments for blocked eustachian tubes
Eustachian tube treatment often isn’t needed as a blocked tube usually gets better on its own. However, there are steps you can take to help your symptoms.
Some over-the-counter medications may be helpful for blocked eustachian tube treatment. These may include:
If you need additional help, your doctor may prescribe:
The simplest way to manage a blocked eustachian tube is home treatment. You can equalize pressure, loosen fluid, and relieve pain with different methods. These may include:
- Chewing gum
- Swallowing and yawning
- Blowing up a balloon
- Closing your mouth, plugging your nose, and blowing air until the ear pops
- Sucking on a candy
- A warm washcloth on the ear
Do not give chewing gum or hard candies to children under age four.
If you have allergies, avoiding allergens may also help sinuses and chronic ear problems. You may need to talk to your doctor about other treatments that could help.
Sometimes you may need surgery as part of eustachian tube treatment. Usually, this only happens if the problem is chronic and nothing helps. Children who have chronic ear infections may have a small ear tube inserted to help drain fluid. This will eventually fall out on its own after a few months.
Sometimes your doctor may also make a small cut in the eardrum and let the fluid drain out. If you have a deviated septum or a cleft palate that affects your eustachian tubes, they may want to do surgeries to correct these and relieve your symptoms.
Side effects of treatments for blocked eustachian tubes
There is always a risk of serious complications from surgery. However, surgery can often be done with a local anesthetic to reduce the risk of general anesthesia. Crusting, infection, obstruction, and a ruptured eardrum are all possible side effects of ear tube surgery. These are rare, however.
If you try blowing to clear your ears, you can burst your eardrum if you blow too hard. Be gentle. If you have a cold or infection, you might also send mucus into the ear and cause an ear infection.
Do ear infections go away on their own?
Ear infections are common and usually go away on their own after a few days, even without medical treatment.
While most common in children, ear infections can occur in adults as well and cause pain due to fluid buildup in the ear.
The most common type of ear infection is middle ear infection or otitis media, although infections can also occur in the outer and inner ear due to bacteria or viruses. Ear infections can be acute, meaning it occurs over a short period of time, or chronic, meaning it occurs over a long period of time.
If your ear infection is associated with severe pain, fever, ear discharge, consult a doctor. Ear infections in infants under 6 months of age require medical attention.
What causes ear infections?
The eustachian tube runs from the middle of each ear to the back of the throat, regulating air pressure and draining fluid in the middle ear. Blockages can cause fluid to build up and lead to infection.
Ear infections are common in infants and children because their Eustachian tubes can easily get clogged. Bottle-fed infants have a higher incidence of ear infections than those who are breastfed.
Common causes of ear infections include:
- Colds and sinus infections
- Infected or overgrown adenoids (lymph tissue behind the nose)
- Tobacco smoke
Risk factors for ear infections include:
- Family history of ear infections
- Changes in altitude or climate
- Cold weather
- Exposure to smoke
- Pacifier use
- Recent upper respiratory tract infection
- Birth defect, including Eustachian tube function
What are signs and symptoms of ear infections?
Symptoms of an ear infection in infants include:
- Refusal to feed
- Inconsolable crying
- Trouble sleeping
Symptoms seen in older children or adults include:
- Ear pain
- Fullness in the ear
- Hearing loss in the affected ear
- Fluid drainage from the ear
- Nasal congestion
- Dizziness or difficulty balancing
- General feeling of being ill
- Loss of appetite
Sudden drainage of yellowish or greenish fluid from the ear may indicate a perforated or ruptured eardrum.
How are ear infections diagnosed?
After taking a complete medical history and asking about symptoms, doctors may examine the ears using an instrument called an otoscope, which can show:
- Areas of marked redness
- Bulging of the tympanic membrane
- Ear discharge
- Air bubbles or fluid behind the tympanic membrane
- Hole (perforation) in the eardrum
Doctors may advise a hearing test if the patient has a history of ear infection.
How are ear infections treated?
Treatment depends on the patient’s age, severity of symptoms, and the cause of the infection. Some ear infections clear on their own without any medical treatment. Pain relief and rest is often all that is needed. Home remedies include:
- Applying a warm compress to the affected ear
- Taking over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen; aspirin should be avoided in children
If there is no improvement or if symptoms get worse, consult your doctor to determine whether antibiotics are needed. Ear drops should be avoided unless eardrum perforation has been ruled out.
If the infection does not go away with medical treatment, your doctor may recommend a procedure in which a small tube is inserted into the eardrum that allows fluids to drain more easily.
Health Technology Assessment: "Interventions for adult Eustachian tube dysfunction: a systematic review."
Stanford Health Care: "Eustachian Tube Problems."
Stanford Health Care: "Treatments for Eustachian Tube Dysfunction."
Texas Sinus Institute: "Eustachian Tube Dysfunction."
Waitzman AA. "Otitis Externa. Medscape."
Waseem M. "Otitis Media."
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