Eustachian tubes are small tubes running between the upper throat and the middle ear (see diagram below). They are responsible for keeping the air pressure equal between the middle ear and outer ear canal. These tubes also help drain the fluid from the middle ear. Normally these tubes are closed, but open with activities such as chewing, swallowing, yawning, nose blowing and equalising.
Eustachian tubes are relatively small, and can become inflamed and swollen because of a cold, sore throat, sinusitis, hayfever, allergies, deviated nasal septum or nasal polyps. As a result of inflammation and swelling the tubes may become blocked and this is called Eustachian tube dysfunction or ETD.
ETD is more common in children as their Eustachian tube is shorter, narrower and more horizontal than an adults.
Signs and symptoms of Eustachian tube dysfunction
Eustachian tube dysfunction happens when you’re Eustachian tubes don’t open easily and prevent air getting into the middle ear. As a result the air pressure on either side of the eardrum becomes unequal. One sign of ETD is a retracted eardrum, where the eardrum is sucked in towards the middle ear.
Symptoms of Eustachian tube dysfunction may include:
- Dulled or muffled hearing, feeling of fullness in the ear (some will report a feeling of water trapped in the ear).
- Unusual sounds including ringing, buzzing, popping or crackling sounds.
- Some episodes of dizziness and pain in the ear.
Common causes and treatment of ETD
Common causes of ETD include respiratory infections such as flu and colds or other problems like asthma, hay fever, allergies and tonsillitis. Anatomical abnormalities can be a factor too, such as large adenoids or facial abnormalities. Children are particularly prone to ETD because their tubes are smaller and more horizontal than an adults.
Eustachian tube dysfunction usually resolves by itself. But in some cases it will take time for a Eustachian tube to go back to normal function and it may require some treatment. Some of the natural treatments include:
- nose blowing after showering or bathing
- exercises like the Valsalva maneuver, and
- inhaling steam from Vicks, Karvol or Tea Tree oil in warm water to help clear the nose and soothe the mucous membranes.
Pharmacological management usually includes the use of nasal sprays that can alleviate nasal congestion.