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Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD)

Ears feel plugged or full? Do sounds seem muffled? Popping or clicking sensations the norm (children may say their ear “tickles”)? You possibly have Eustachian Tube Dysfunction.

If you’re worried about losing your hearing, book your free hearing check with one of our experts at a Boots store near you.
Eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD) can cause dulled hearing. It is usually a temporary problem that lasts a week or so; however, early treatment is recommended, as delays often lead to complications which, if not resolved successfully, may result in prolonged suffering for the patient.

Boots Hearingcare looks at eustachian tube dysfunction and how it impacts hearing health.

What are the symptoms?

When eustachian tube dysfunction occurs, sounds may be muffled, and your ear may feel full. You may also have ear pain.

Other common symptoms of eustachian tube dysfunction include:

  • Clicking, popping or “tickling” sensations in your ears
  • Tinnitus (ringing in your ears)
  • Pain or tenderness in the affected ear(s)
  • Trouble balancing, often accompanied by dizziness

Eustachian tube dysfunction symptoms usually get worse with changes in altitude – e.g., flying in an airplane, riding elevators, driving through mountains, diving, etc. – so avoid situations like these wherever possible.

What are the causes?

Anything can prevent the eustachian tubes from equalizing pressure. The best thing to do if you think you are suffering from eustachian tube dysfunction is to seek expert medical advice and take it from there.

The two main causes of eustachian tube dysfunction are:

  • Illness and/or infection: When the tubes get inflamed and mucus or fluid builds up. This can be due to a cold, the flu, a sinus infection, or allergies – including hay fever.
  • Changes in altitude: For instance, if you are on a plane, symptoms may exacerbate as the aircraft ascends or descends during flight. However, they should ease after you touch down again.

Whatever the reason for your eustachian tube dysfunction, it pays to book a doctor’s appointment early and stop the condition from worsening.

What treatments are available?

Most people suffering from eustachian tube dysfunction experience mild symptoms that come and go. Treatment may not even be needed.

Other people, however, have frequent, severe symptoms whose treatment will need to be overseen by a medical professional. Self-care and over-the-counter medications may be advised initially, but any deterioration of the condition must be responded to with more thorough solutions.

The following will help with most instances of eustachian tube dysfunction:

  • Nasal decongestants
  • Saline or steroid sprays
  • Earplugs

It is important to remember that babies with eustachian tube dysfunction symptoms can be helped by feeding them milk or giving them a dummy, both of which encourage the swallow reflex and open the tubes. Children with ongoing ETD symptoms should be taken to a doctor straight away; these warning signs can mimic, or mask, a more serious ear infection.

Also, it is advisable not to fly with eustachian tube dysfunction, given the risk of middle (and possibly inner, in severe cases) ear damage.

Frequently asked questions

How long does eustachian tube dysfunction last?

The duration of eustachian tube dysfunction varies on a case-by-case basis. Symptoms may last a few hours to several days. However, if they persist for more than two weeks, you should arrange to see your GP. Book an appointment sooner if it is a child or baby with symptoms.

Who is most at risk of eustachian tube dysfunction?

Anyone can experience eustachian tube dysfunction from time to time, but some people are more prone to this condition. Children and smokers are very susceptible, as well as people who are severely overweight. Those with chronic allergies are also more at risk.

Can surgery help eustachian tube dysfunction?

Surgery is certainly one possible solution to chronic or severe ETD. Surgical treatments are overall very effective in restoring your hearing, relieving any feeling of pressure or blockage in your ears, and reducing the likelihood of repeated infections. If your doctor thinks this is the best treatment approach for you, they will recommend it as part of their treatment plan.

Can eustachian tube dysfunction clear up by itself?

In most cases, yes. If it is caused by a mild illness or infection, symptoms will abate as you recover.

If a change in altitude is to blame, you should feel better once you are back on solid ground (meanwhile, try sucking a sweet, which encourages air to flow up the eustachian tubes, helping to equalise pressure).