Eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD)

Blocked ears and eustachian tube dysfunction

Eustachian tubes are small tubes that run between your middle ears and the upper throat. They are responsible for equalising ear pressure and draining fluid from the middle ear. These passageways are small in size and can get plugged for a variety of reasons. Blocked eustachian tubes can cause pain, hearing difficulties, and a feeling of fullness in the ears. Such a phenomenon is referred to as eustachian tube dysfunction.

What is the eustachian tube?

The eustachian tube is a small passageway that connects your throat to your middle ear. When you sneeze, swallow, or yawn, your eustachian tubes open. This keeps air pressure and fluid from building up inside your ear.

These passageways can get blocked for a variety of reasons. Blocked eustachian tubes can cause pain, hearing difficulties, and a feeling of fullness in the ears. Such a phenomenon is referred to as Eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD).

Eustachian tube dysfuncion symptoms

Symptoms of ETD may include: 

  • Fullness in the ears
  • Feeling like your ears are blocked
  • Changes to your hearing
  • Ringing in the ear, also known as tinnitus
  • Clicking or popping sounds
  • Ticklish feelings in the ears
  • Pain

The length of time that ETD symptoms last depends on the initial cause. Symptoms from altitude changes, for example, may resolve once you get back to the altitude you’re used to. Illnesses and other causes of ETD may result in longer-lasting symptoms.

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Eustachian tube

Discover more information on the eustachian tube, such as causes, diagnosis and tips about how to unblock eustachian tubes.

What causes clogged eustachian tube?

Allergies and illnesses like the common cold are the most common causes of ETD, alongside changes in altitude. These conditions may cause your eustachian tubes to become inflamed or clogged with mucus. People with sinus infections are more likely to develop clogged eustachian tubes.

Diagnosis of eustachian tube blockage

ETD is commonly diagnosed through a physical exam. First, your doctor will ask you about pain, hearing changes, or other symptoms you are experiencing. Then your doctor will look inside your ear, carefully checking your ear canal and passages into the nose and throat. It can also be diagnosed by a hearing professional through tympanometry/immittance measures as part of a standard diagnostic hearing assessment.

Sometimes ETD may be mistaken for other conditions involving the ears. One example is abnormal patency of the eustachian tubes. This is a condition in which the tubes frequently open on their own.

How do you unblock eustachian tubes?

Symptoms of eustachian tube dysfunction usually go away without treatment. You can do exercises to open up the tubes. This includes swallowing, yawning, or chewing gum or even blowing a balloon. You can help relieve the “full ear” feeling by taking a deep breath, pinching your nostrils closed, and “blowing” with your mouth shut.

If these exercises don't unblock your eustachion tubes you can try taking a decongestant to reduce swelling in the tubes, or an antihistamine to reduce any allergic response.

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if your symptoms are severe or last more than two weeks.
Children are more likely to see a doctor for eustachian tube dysfunction. This is because they are at an overall higher risk of getting ear infections. The pain from ETD can mimic the pain from an ear infection.

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