Ear & Balance
Plugged Or Blocked Ears? It May Be Eustachian Tube Dysfunction
January 16, 2020
In between your middle ears and the upper part of the throat lies small tubes that equalize ear pressure and drain fluid from behind the eardrum. These tubes are known as Eustachian tubes and are usually closed except for when you are chewing, swallowing or yawning.
Sometimes, they can get plugged and there is a variety of reasons why that happens – which is also called Eustachian tube dysfunction or ETD.
Eustachian tube dysfunction can result in symptoms like pain in one or both ears, tinnitus, hearing difficulties and a sensation of blocked ears. Depending on the cause, it may be resolved by nasal sprays or require a medical procedure. If it is recurring, you need to consult an ENT specialist in Singapore.
What are the causes?
Allergies and illnesses that affect the throat and nose area are the most common causes of ETD. Sinus infections and illnesses like the flu, cold or sinus infection can affect the eustachian tubes, causing inflammation or clogging the passages with mucus.
Another common cause is a change in altitude or air pressure. This is usually experienced when in an elevator, flying in a plane, or traveling in mountainous regions but symptoms for these typically resolve faster than illnesses.
What are the symptoms?
The most common symptoms include:
- Blocked ears
- Having a sensation of water in the ears
- Tinnitus or a ringing sound
- Trouble balancing
- Popping or ticking sound
Sometimes there’s pain and tenderness around the ear. The duration of the symptoms often varies depending on the cause of the ETD. If it is caused by an infection or mucus build-up due to an illness, the symptoms will persist for longer and will be more pronounced. If the symptoms persist for more than a week, make an appointment with an ENT specialist in Singapore and seek treatment.
Who is at risk of experiencing ETD?
Small children will often experience ETD since they get respiratory illnesses more frequently and their eustachian tubes are immature and lie more horizontally, which makes them less effective. This makes it much easier for mucus and germs to reach the middle ear and become trapped. They are also more prone to infections as their immune systems are still developing, thus making it harder to fight off infections.
Other groups of people who are at greater risk for ETD include smokers and overweight people. Smoking can increase the chances of mucus gathering in the tubes as the protective hairs in the middle ear, known as cilia, are damaged. In obesity, fatty deposits can accumulate around the eustachian tubes. People with allergy conditions such as persistent rhinitis can cause more mucus to develop, thus increasing the chance of congestion.
Safe home treatments
Symptoms for ETD can usually be resolved without treatments. This includes doing exercises to open up the tubes such as yawning, swallowing and chewing gum. You can also try taking a deep breath, pinching your nostrils and “blowing” with your mouth shut. A decongestant or nasal steroid sprays can also be used to reduce the swelling of the tube lining.
However, if you are experiencing severe symptoms and they persist for more than two weeks, the best action to take is to consult an ENT Specialist. Your doctor will examine your nasal passages as well as ear canals and ear drums, perform a hearing test and recommend the appropriate course of treatment. Surgery may be indicated in patients with severe or chronic ETD to relieve pressure of blockage in your ears and restore your hearing. The most surgery to relieve an ETD is the insertion of ventilation tubes in the eardrums (known as myringotomy tubes). Balloon dilation of the Eustachian tubes is a fairly recent surgical option that may be suitable in some patients with persistent ETD that has failed medical treatments.
If you don’t treat the underlying cause of ETD, the situation could get worse and you may develop a condition known as Otitis Media with Effusion (OME) or the “Glue Ear” (fluid behind the eardrum). Some patients can also develop eardrum retraction. You can reduce your risk of developing ETD by treating the underlying cause like allergies, cold or the flu.
Medically reviewed by Dr Gan Eng Cern