The Eustachian tube is an opening originating from the back of the nose and throat to the middle ear. Its primary function is to ventilate the middle ear space, to equalize environmental air pressure with middle ear pressure. This tube is normally closed and opens when a person swallows, yawns, or chews. When conditions cause a change so that the pressure outside becomes greater than the pressure in the middle ear, an uncomfortable and sometimes painful popping or clicking sensation and fullness or pressure in the ear results.
Ear pressure is known medically as barotitis media, barotrauma, pressure-related ear pain, or Eustachian tube dysfunction.
Causes of Pressure in Ear
Failure to effectively regulate air pressure results from a blocked, swollen, or collapsed Eustachian tube. Air and fluid become trapped causing a buildup of pressure in the middle ear.
There are several conditions that contribute to this pressure.
- Congenital factor: A person may be born with a narrow Eustachian tube or with a dysfunctional tube that may become blocked, resulting in increased ear pressure.
- Altitude Changes: Pressure in ear results from failure of the Eustachian tube to properly equalize the middle ear air pressure creating a positive pressure against the middle ear. This is due to shifts in altitudes such as during airplane take off and landing, mountain climbing, or scuba diving
- Infections: Ear infections, such as serous otitis media, a condition where fluid accumulates in the middle ear, and respiratory infections, involving the sinuses, nose, and throat, all cause blockage of the Eustachian tube, resulting in increased pressure in ear.
- Other health conditions: Allergies, adenoids, cleft palate, accumulation of ear wax, and tumors also cause increased ear pressure.
Symptoms and Complications of Pressure in Ear
Symptoms of ear pressure include:
- Mild hearing loss
- Ear discomfort in one or both ears
- Ear fullness or stuffiness
Severe or prolonged cases can cause:
- Pain in the ears
- Pressure in ears, as if submerged in water
- Hearing loss (moderate to severe)
- Bleeding from the nose
If ear pressure is left untreated, or improperly treated, complications occur, which include acute ear infection, loss of hearing, rupture or perforation of the ear eardrum, and vertigo.
Treatments for Pressure in Ear
The buildup of air pressure in the middle ear can be relieved with simple measures:
- Yawning, sucking on a piece of hard candy or chewing gum opens the Eustachian tube, allowing the pressure in the middle ear to equalize with the air pressure.
- Inhaling then slowly exhaling through a pinched nose and a mouth closed can be done to relieve the pressure or discomfort
- Applying a warm compress. Pour hot water over folded paper towels. Lie on the unaffected side and apply the towel over the affected ear. Place a cup over the towels to allow heat from the paper towels to allow the ear to open up.
- Taking an over the counter decongestant or antihistamine before getting on an airplane. This will help clear the sinuses and relieve ear pressure in case of sinus infection
One of the more common causes of ear pressure is infection of the sinuses. Infected sinuses become inflamed and swollen and filled with mucus causing pressure to build up. It is important to treat the underlying cause of the sinus condition but simple home remedies can be done to relieve the ear pressure:
- Hydrate with plenty of fluids such as water, juice, or herbal tea. Fluids help dilute mucus and relieve ear pressure
- Apply a warm compress over the affected ear.
- Arrange pillows to elevate the head while sleeping. This allows drainage and reduces ear pressure
- Take a hot shower or boil water for steam inhalation. Place the head directly over a wide-mouthed pot and cover with a large towel to inhale the vapor from the boiled water. This will help drain the sinuses and reduce the discomfort cause by the ear pressure.
- Take a decongestant, antihistamine or use a nasal spray. Nasal sprays are easy to use and acts by irrigating the nasal passages causing immediate relief of the sinus pressure.
The above-mentioned home remedies are simple and easy methods and usually work in a few minutes. These can be tried first in order to relieve ear pressure. However, if ear pressure persists or the condition worsens, a search for the underlying cause is warranted so that the appropriate management may be given. Conditions to watch out for include drainage or bleeding from the ear, fever, or severe ear pain. The treatment may consist of an antibiotic, antihistamine, decongestant or steroid or a combination of these medicine, or use of surgery.