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Eustachian tube dysfunction

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What is Eustachian tube dysfunction?

The Eustachian tube is a narrow tube that connects the part of the ear behind the eardrum (middle ear) to the back of the nose. Its role is to keep the air pressure inside the middle ear the same as outside the middle ear. If the tube gets blocked or doesn’t open properly, it can cause a condition called Eustachian tube dysfunction.

Eustachian tube dysfunction usually begins after you have had a cold. The condition can lead to trouble hearing, ringing in the ear (tinnitus), ear pain and a feeling of pressure or fullness in the affected ear.

Eustachian tube dysfunction tends to be a temporary condition that typically resolves on its own after a few days or weeks, depending on the cause.

However, you should see your doctor if your symptoms are severe, last for more than a few days or they get worse instead of better.

Eustachian tube dysfunction symptoms

The main symptom of Eustachian tube dysfunction is dulled or muffled hearing. You may also have ringing in your ears (tinnitus).

Other symptoms of Eustachian tube dysfunction can include:

  • a feeling of pressure/fullness in the ear
  • ear pain that usually comes and goes
  • mild dizziness
  • hearing popping and snapping noises

These symptoms can affect one or both ears.

Eustachian tube dysfunction does not tend to cause tinnitus without hearing loss or ear pain which is there all the time. If you have either of these symptoms, you may have a different ear condition.

See your doctor as soon as possible.

Causes of Eustachian tube dysfunction

Eustachian tube dysfunction is caused by conditions that inflame or irritate the tube. These include:

Other causes of Eustachian tube dysfunction include:

  • glue ear
  • exposure to irritants - such as tobacco smoke and pollution
  • growths that block the Eustachian tube - such as enlarged adenoids
  • sudden changes in air pressure - such as when flying or scuba diving

Eustachian tube dysfunction usually improves within a few days or weeks. However, in rare cases, it can continue for many months. This may be caused by:

Sometimes no cause is found.

Diagnosis of Eustachian tube dysfunction

Most of the time, Eustachian tube dysfunction goes away on its own within a few days or weeks.

If you are concerned about your symptoms, your symptoms last for more than a few days or they get worse instead of better, see a doctor.

Your doctor may diagnose Eustachian tube dysfunction based on your symptoms, medical history and an examination of your ears, nose and throat.

In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a specialist (ear, nose and throat doctor) for further investigations. These may include:

  • hearing tests - to get an accurate idea of your hearing
  • ear pressure tests - to test the pressure behind your eardrum
  • nasopharyngoscopy - a procedure in which a small flexible camera is put into your nose to look at the back of your nose
  • a CT scan

Eustachian tube dysfunction treatment

Most cases of Eustachian tube dysfunction do not need treatment and resolve on their own within a few days or weeks.

Self-care

You can help your recovery by encouraging more airflow in and out of your Eustachian tube. You can do this by swallowing, yawning or chewing.

You may also be able to improve your symptoms by taking a breath in, and then breathing out gently while closing your mouth and pinching your nose.

This action can help to ‘pop’ your ears open by forcing air through the Eustachian tube and into the middle ear. Only perform this action when you are sitting down, as it can sometimes cause dizziness.

If you have a cold or a blocked nose, non-prescription decongestants may help improve your symptoms. If you have hayfever, antihistamines may provide relief.

You can buy these medicines from a pharmacy or supermarket without a prescription, but always follow the instructions on the packaging and speak to a pharmacist if you need advice on how to take them.

Medicines

If you need treatment, this will depend on the cause and severity of your symptoms. Medicines, such as steroid drops or sprays, may help to improve your symptoms.

Speak with your doctor or pharmacist for advice on the best medicine for your symptoms.

Surgery

If your symptoms do not resolve on their own or with steroid drops or sprays, your doctor may recommend a surgical procedure.

The exact procedure will depend on the cause of your Eustachian tube dysfunction. Surgery may involve placing a small plastic tube into your ear or removing any growths that may be pressing on the Eustachian tube.

How long does it take to recover from Eustachian tube dysfunction?

Eustachian tube dysfunction is usually mild and resolves on its own within a few days or weeks.

More rarely, the condition can last for several months.

In some cases, Eustachian tube dysfunction can cause complications, including:

  • hearing loss
  • hole in the eardrum (perforated eardrum)
  • ear infections (otitis media)
  • glue ear
  • cholesteatoma
  • otic barotrauma - eardrum damage when doing activities in which the surrounding air pressure changes, such as scuba diving or flying

Related articles

Glue ear

Ear infections

Earache

Hearing loss

Common cold

Date of last review: 26 June 2020

References:

McCoul, E. (2019). Eustachian tube dysfunction - Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment | BMJ Best Practice. [online] Bestpractice.bmj.com. Available here.

Uptodate.com. (2019). UpToDate. [online] Available here.

Uptodate.com. (2019). UpToDate. [online] Available here.

Payne, J. (2019). Eustachian Tube Dysfunction | Blocked Eustachian Tube | Symptoms and Treatment. [online] Patient.info. Available here.

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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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