We rely on our ears to hear the tiniest of noises, but most of the time we don’t give these hardworking body parts much thought. In fact, the part of the ear that we can see is just the tip of the iceberg—a complex system that begins with a sound and ends as a perception in the brain. But if someone experiences a blockage in the ear, that delicate system is at best interrupted, and at worst, thrown into chaos.
How the Eustachian Tube Functions
The inner ear is sensitive to pressure changes and requires a valve that can open and close to equalize air and fluid imbalances. This valve is called the Eustachian tube. There is one Eustachian tube in each ear, connecting the middle ear to the back of the throat. The tubes are about an inch long, and the narrowest part is the end that connects to the middle ear.
The middle ear is normally filled with air, allowing sound to flow through to the brain. When a person swallows or yawns, the Eustachian tube opens briefly, restoring air that has been absorbed by the middle ear lining and equalizing pressure in the ear. If the Eustachian tube cannot open, a person may suffer hearing impairment, ear pain, a sensation of fullness in one or both ears, tinnitus, and other symptoms.
Eustachian Tube Problems Related to Changes in Altitude
It is common for people who have Eustachian tube problems to have difficulty equalizing middle ear pressure when flying. Pressure changes occur rapidly during an airplane’s takeoff and landing procedures: when an aircraft takes off, the atmospheric pressure decreases, increasing middle ear air pressure. When it descends, atmospheric pressure increases, decreasing middle ear pressure. Discomfort is more commonly felt as a plane lands, but can be uncomfortable at any point in a flight if the cabin pressure changes.
There are many ways people can prevent Eustachian tube problems associated with flying, including:
- Avoiding high-risk situations. People who are suffering from acute upper respiratory ailments, such as a common cold, severe allergies, or sinus infections, should avoid flying.
- Taking a decongestant. People who have chronic Eustachian tube problems can prepare for air travel ahead of time by taking Sudafed tablets according to package directions the day before the flight.
- Using nasal spray. Travelers should pack a plastic squeeze bottle of 1/4 percent NeoSynephrine or Afrin nasal spray in their carry-on luggage. Travelers should use the nasal spray once according to package directions shortly before boarding, and again forty-five minutes before the plane is due to land.
- Swallowing and yawning. If your ears “plug up” as the plane takes off, hold your nose and swallow while attempting to force air up to the back of the throat. This will suck excess air pressure out of the middle ear. Yawning can also stimulate the Eustachian tubes to open, and can be done continually while landing.
- Chewing gum. Chewing gum stimulates swallowing and encourages the Eustachian tubes to open. While chewing, you can hold your nose and blow gently toward the back of the throat while swallowing (known as the Valsalva Maneuver) if you feel pressure building behind your ears.
NOTE: Patients who have had a middle ear ventilation tube (PE tube) placed in their eardrum (tympanic membrane) should not need to follow any of these precautions.
Treatment of Eustachian Tube Problems
The most common causes of Eustachian tube malfunction are blockages, such as earwax or foreign objects pressing against the opening of the valve. If the obstruction is not removed, fluid may begin to build up in the middle ear (a condition called serous otitis media) and can eventually result in a painful ear infection. In some cases, the opposite occurs: the Eustachian tube remains open instead of closed (called patulous Eustachian tube). Patients with this condition may hear an echo or a ringing in the affected ear, and may suffer a “full” feeling in the ear even though the tube is not blocked.
Blocked Eustachian tubes may cause a range of symptoms, including:
- Pain in the affected ear
- A feeling of fullness in the ear
- A crackling or popping noise in one or both ears
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Difficulty hearing
Tubes that are blocked due to swelling, such as from a cold or allergies, will often reopen on their own once the swelling has gone down. However, if the tube remains blocked for a prolonged period of time, fluid may collect in the middle ear space and cause an infection, a painful condition known as otitis media. In this case, patients may need antibiotics to treat the infection and relieve the pressure in the Eustachian tubes.
Any Eustachian tube problems that cause hearing impairment should be evaluated by a hearing care specialist as soon as possible. A hearing provider will look into your ears to find out if there is a buildup of earwax or other obstruction causing the problem. If so, blockage removal can alleviate the pressure and open the valve almost immediately. Call us today at 866-517-4415 to schedule a hearing examination at one of our many convenient Florida hearing aid locations!