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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.
See a picture of the eustachian tube.
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.
Blocked eustachian tubes can cause several symptoms, including:
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms. He or she will look in your ears. The doctor also may check how well you hear.
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 face cloth 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.
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.
Current as of: April 15, 2020
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Susan C. Kim MD - PediatricsThomas M. Bailey MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineCharles M. Myer III MD - Otolaryngology
Current as of: April 15, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Susan C. Kim MD - Pediatrics & Thomas M. Bailey MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Charles M. Myer III MD - Otolaryngology
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