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
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
See a picture of the
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 in your nose. You
antibiotics if you have an ear infection.
A warm washcloth 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 allow
children to go to bed with a heating pad. They could get burned. Use a heating pad only if your child is old
enough to tell you if it's getting too hot.
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
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.
Other Works Consulted
Pai S, Parikh SR (2012). Otitis media. In AK Lalwani, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, 3rd ed., pp. 674–681. New York: McGraw-Hill.
September 10, 2012
Susan C. Kim, MD - Pediatrics
& Charles M. Myer, III, MD - Otolaryngology
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