Eustachian tube dysfunction is a condition where the tubes that connect your middle ears to your upper throat become blocked. This can lead to discomfort, hearing difficulties and a feeling of fullness in your ear. Eustachian tube dysfunction usually resolves itself in a few days. But if it doesn’t, seeking treatment is important.
Your eustachian (pronounced “you-stay-shee-un”) tubes connect your middle ears to the back of your throat. (Your middle ear is the air-filled chamber just behind your eardrum.) Your eustachian tubes equalize air pressure and help drain fluid from your ears. When they become clogged, it’s called eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD).
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Eustachian tube dysfunction can affect people of all ages, but it’s much more common in children. To put it in perspective, about 1% of the adult population is diagnosed with the condition. Meanwhile, approximately 70% of children develop eustachian tube dysfunction before the age of 7.
There are different types of eustachian tube dysfunction. The most common include patulous ETD, obstructive ETD and baro-challenge-induced ETD.
People with ETD may experience a number of warning signs. Common eustachian tube dysfunction symptoms include:
Eustachian tube dysfunction symptoms may get worse in higher altitudes. This is called barotrauma, and it can happen while scuba diving, flying in an airplane or driving in the mountains.
Allergies and infections (like the common cold and the flu) are the most common causes of eustachian tube dysfunction. These conditions can cause inflammation and mucus buildup, leading to blockage. GERD, or chronic acid reflux, can also cause ETD. This is because stomach acid can back up into your throat and result in inflammation. As mentioned above, altitude changes can also cause ETD.
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and examine your ears. They’ll check your ear canals, nasal passages and the back of your throat.
In most cases, treatment isn’t necessary because ETD often resolves on its own. However, you might need treatment if your symptoms linger for more than two weeks.
Eustachian tube dysfunction treatment depends on the cause and the severity of your condition. Treatments may include home remedies, medications or, in severe cases, surgery.
Sometimes simple home remedies can help with mild cases of eustachian tube dysfunction. To try and clear the blockage, you can:
If you think your baby has ETD, give them a pacifier or a bottle. The sucking motion may help clear the blockage.
Over-the-counter medications can help if allergies are causing eustachian tube dysfunction. Try antihistamines (like cetirizine or diphenhydramine) to ease your symptoms. If you have discomfort, pain relievers — such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen — can help.
Chronic eustachian tube dysfunction may require surgery. The goal of this treatment is to bypass your eustachian tubes and address ventilation problems in your middle ears. This restores hearing issues and other symptoms. There are a few different surgical options, including:
If you’ve had surgery for eustachian tube dysfunction, your recovery time can vary depending on which type of treatment you received. People who’ve had myringotomy usually recover in about three to four weeks. If you had tubes placed, they should remain in place for about 12 to 18 months. People who receive eustachian tuboplasty generally recover in about 24 hours.
While you can’t prevent ETD altogether, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. For example:
The good news is that ETD usually isn’t serious. But the associated symptoms can be annoying and inconvenient. Talk to your healthcare provider to learn how to manage the condition and improve your quality of life.
Eustachian tube dysfunction usually goes away in one to two weeks. People with chronic eustachian tube dysfunction may have lingering symptoms for weeks, months or even years.
Chronic eustachian tube dysfunction has been linked to ear injuries and trauma. In rare cases, untreated ETD can cause hearing loss and permanent damage to your eardrum and middle ear. That’s why prompt treatment is necessary.
If eustachian tube dysfunction causes severe pain, or if symptoms last longer than a couple of weeks, make an appointment with your healthcare provider.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD) usually isn’t serious. But if symptoms linger for several weeks and are left untreated, it could lead to serious health problems, such as hearing loss, tinnitus or damage to your eardrum and middle ear. If you notice that symptoms don’t go away on their own in a week or two, it’s important to schedule a visit with your healthcare provider. They can help determine the cause of your condition and recommend the appropriate treatment.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/17/2022.
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