Have you ever experienced dull or muffled hearing, or feel like there is water trapped in your ear? Perhaps your ear has been crackling or popping, with some associated ear discomfort? You may be suffering from Eustachian Tube Dysfunction or ETD. Although it may sound serious, most people will experience some degree of it at least once in their lifetime.
To understand ETD, it helps to understand what the eustachian tube is and how our it works. The eustachian tube is a narrow tube that connects the back of the nose to the middle ear, behind the eardrum. This tube is normally closed but opens from time to time to allow air in and allow any mucous to flow out. This often happens on its own when we swallow, yawn or chew. Air goes in and keeps the pressures on either side of the eardrum the same, which is necessary for hearing. It also allows our ears to feel comfortable.
The eustachian tube is positioned more horizontally in children than in adults and is smaller. Children are at greater risk of ETD because mucous and germs can become trapped more easily.
Eustachian tube dysfunction is a very common condition during the winter months when colds and viruses are more prevalent, or in spring when the pollen count is high. However, it can occur at any time of year.
What are the symptoms of eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD)?
Muffled or dulled hearing, popping or crackling sounds in the ear, the sensation of water in the ear, tinnitus, pain and a feeling of pressure are the most common symptoms. They can last from a few hours to several weeks or more, depending on the cause. Sometimes, after an ear clean, you may still experience these symptoms. This is because they are coming from your middle ear, where we cannot reach.
Why am I hearing strange sounds in my ears?
Why can’t I hear properly?
The eustachian tube is normally filled with air only. If it becomes blocked or cannot open properly, the air pressure on either side of the eardrum becomes unequal, causing the eardrum to become retracted, or pulled inward, much like a ball gets pulled back in a slingshot. The eardrum tenses and cannot send sound vibrations up to the brain effectively. Blocked hearing and distorted sounds can result.
What causes ETD?
The common cold and other viruses / infections
The mucous that is often produced during a cold or virus travels from the nose down to the back of the ear via the eustachian tube, blocking it and causing inflammation. The symptoms of ETD may persist for up to 2 months after the cold has gone. This is because the trapped mucus may take a while to clear. Our Nurses at Crystal Clear Ears can see you if you have any mucous or fluid behind your eardrum.
Allergies that affect the nose, such as perennial rhinitis and hay fever, can cause extra mucus and inflammation in the eustachian tube as pollens are breathed in through the nose. Dust particles can also cause it.
Other causes: Anything that causes a blockage to the eustachian tube can cause ETD. Other possible causes are enlarged adenoids, obesity, smoking and narrowed eustachian tubes.
How do we treat Eustachian Tube Dysfunction?
Often, in mild cases no treatment is needed and symptoms will resolve on their own. If not, try the following:
Get more air to flow into your eustachian tube
Air flow through the eustachian tube will relieve the pressurized feeling associated with ETD. This can be done by chewing, yawning, swallowing or moving the jaw from side to side. You can also try what we call the Valsalva manoevre. Pinch the end of your nose and blow gently for 2-3 seconds while keeping your mouth closed. Do not do this if you have a heart condition or tendency to faint. You should feel your ears ‘pop’ as air is forced into the middle ear. This often works well when flying.
Saline nasal sprays and rinses (e.g. Flo)
These help to flush out the eustachian tubes and flush away any mucous, dust and pollens. They are suitable for all ages including babies.
There are other options available to help with your symptoms such as nasal decongestant nasal sprays (eg. Otrivin), antihistamines, and steroid nasal sprays (eg. Nasonex, Rhinocort and Avamys). They will help ease nasal congestion, inflammation and allergy symptoms. Prior to commencing these, please discuss them with your Doctor or Pharmacist, to make sure they are suitable for you.
Referral to a specialist
If symptoms persist, or the cause of the ETD is not clear, you may be referred to an Ear Specialist (ENT) for assessment. Treatment options depend on any underlying cause that may be found.