The eustachian tube runs from the ear to the back of your nose and is typically closed, however, it opens up when one yawns or swallows, allowing air to enter the middle ear. In the event that this tube malfunctions, it can result in decreased air pressure in the middle ear, causing the eardrum to retract inwards. This can lead to a sensation of blockage and discomfort in the ear, as well as hearing impairment.
Dr. Annabelle Leong is an ENT specialist with extensive knowledge on blocked ear and hearing loss in patients and helps both children and adults treat their ENT conditions. She helps to treat all ENT conditions, including nasal, sinus and sleep disorders. In this article she describes the causes behind blocked ear.
What are the causes of a blocked ear?
Eustachian Tube Dysfunction:
Eustachian tube dysfunction can be caused by various factors. The most common cause is a blocked nose due to swelling, which closes the entrance to the eustachian tube. A cold is a frequent culprit, but allergies can also trigger it. In children, glue ear and enlarged adenoids can lead to eustachian tube dysfunction. Smoking can also affect how the eustachian tube functions. Air travel or scuba diving can exacerbate the condition.
How can eustachian tube dysfunction be treated?
If one experiences symptoms of eustachian tube dysfunction, the Valsalva maneuver can be tried. It is done by closing the mouth, holding the nose closed, and blowing into it, which may produce a clicking sound in the ears.
If the problem persists, a steroid nasal spray may be used for a longer duration, particularly if it is caused by an allergy. If the symptoms do not improve, you should see your doctor to rule out other ear issues such as waxy ears, middle ear infections, or outer ear infections that may be causing your pain.
The Eustachian tube plays a crucial role in maintaining pressure balance in the middle ear. However, during a sudden change in altitude, it may not always be able to equalize the pressure adequately. Consequently, the ears may experience the effects of the air pressure changes. In certain situations, like scuba diving or driving up a mountain, some people may experience a temporary ear blockage. However, it is most commonly observed during take-off or landing of an airplane.
A clogged ear may be an outcome of a change in altitude, it may lead to barotrauma or airplane ear if accompanied by pain, hearing loss, or dizziness.
An ear infection can cause blockage in the ear and there are two types of ear infections to take note of.
- The first type is an outer ear infection, also known as swimmer’s ear or otitis externa, which occurs when water is trapped in the ear after swimming, creating a moist environment that promotes bacterial or fungal growth. Symptoms of this infection include ear pain, redness, fluid discharge, and fever.
- The second type is middle ear inflammation or otitis media, which is caused when microorganisms reach the space behind the eardrum. This type of infection is often a complication of a respiratory infection which can affect hearing and balance in addition to causing pain and fever.
The function of earwax is to protect the ear by cleansing the ear canal and preventing foreign objects from entering the ear. Although earwax is usually soft, it can harden and create an obstruction in the ear. Excessive production of earwax can also cause blockage. If earwax causes a blockage, symptoms such as ear pain, tinnitus, reduced hearing, and vertigo may occur. Cleaning the ear canal with a cotton swab can lead to these obstructions. Placing a cotton swab inside the ear is not recommended however, as this method of cleaning can push the earwax further into the ear.
Cholesteatoma is a noncancerous skin growth located behind the eardrum, which can be congenital or develop as a result of middle ear infections. The condition usually manifests as a feeling of ear pressure or blockage, with accompanying symptoms of hearing loss and discharge from the ear with an unpleasant odor. As these symptoms can also be associated with ear infections, a doctor will conduct an ear examination to make a diagnosis.
The following are indications that someone may be experiencing hearing loss:
- Sounds and speech may appear muffled.
- Difficulty comprehending words, particularly in noisy environments or among a group of people.
- Difficulty hearing consonant sounds.
- Regularly asking others to speak more loudly, slowly, or clearly.
- Turning up the volume of the TV or radio to an uncomfortable level.
- Avoiding social situations or withdrawing from conversations.
- If one suddenly loses hearing, especially in one ear, seek immediate medical attention.
If one’s hearing difficulties are interfering with a person’s daily activities, then speak with an experienced otolaryngologist. Remember, hearing loss caused by aging happens gradually, so you may not notice it at first.