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What are Eustachian Tubes?

A man yawning to open his eustachian tubes.
Chewing gum can relieve pressure in the Eustachian tubes caused by changes in barometric pressure when flying.
A man opening his eustachian tubes to pop his ears on an airplane.
Swollen Eustachian tubes can cause inner ear infections.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 July 2014
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Eustachian tubes are small passageways on either side of the head that connect the back of the throat, or the pharynx, to the middle ear. Sometimes, these passages are referred to as pharyngotympanic tubes, but the term Eustachian is still more common and recognizable by those without a medical background. These tubes were named in honor of the scientist, Bartolomeo Eustachius, who studied the ear in the 16th century and defined its components with greater precision than had been accomplished before.

Among other things Eustachius and scientists have discovered since his time, is that the Eustachian tubes are about 1.5 inches (3.81 cm) long in adults. One of their more interesting features is that they remain closed most of the time, but they open to keep pressure values consistent between the middle ear and the throat.

As the tubes open, they can sometimes cause a small popping noise. Most people are fairly familiar with this noise if they travel by air or climb tall mountains. The pop can bring relief as pressure built up in the middle ear can become uncomfortable.

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In order to force the tubes to open, people often chew gum or try to yawn. Yawning does tend to open the tubes, as does opening the mouth wide, as it stretches the muscles in the neck. The tubes also open slightly during colds and allergies to drain mucus from the ears into the pharynx. If the mucus hardens or the Eustachian tubes become swollen, however, fluid cannot drain properly and may accumulate and grow bacteria in the middle ear, causing ear infections.

One of the reasons that children are more prone to ear infections is because their Eustachian tubes are shorter and also are more horizontal to the nose and throat. In adult ears, they normally point downward toward the throat, which allows for easier drainage, since simple gravity does some of the work. The horizontal position in children means that there is very little downward flow, which can cause a back up of mucus and lead to middle ear infections.

In some instances, the failure of the Eustachian tubes to properly drain causes ear infections with such frequency in children that they have tubes placed in their ears to keep the passageway open. This allows for easier drainage and frequently ends bouts of ear infection. As a child ages, the tubes tend to fall out because the passageway to the throat has been naturally widened.

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fBoyle
Post 4

@turkay1-- If you have so many issues with your ears during flights, you might have blocked Eustachian tubes, partially or completely. You need to see an ear specialist about this.

I have partially blocked Eustachian tubes, they're not in very bad condition so I manage changes in air pressure with nasal sprays, gum and a little trick that a nurse told me. I hold my nose closed with my fingers, keep my mouth closed and create pressure inside my mouth. It causes a popping sound and opens up my Eustachian tubes. I do this occasionally during flights.

I also chew gum most of the time and I use saline nasal spray before the plane takes off and lands. Nasal sprays help keep the Eustachian tubes open.

ddljohn
Post 3

@anon297643-- The eustachian tubes help regulate pressure in the middle ear. It keeps pressure inside the ear equal to the pressure outside. The tubes also help keep the ears clean.

candyquilt
Post 2

I have a lot of trouble with my eustachian tubes during flights. Whenever the plane is taking off, landing or changing elevation, pressure builds up in my ears and causes pain. It affects my hearing too and it's the most annoying thing ever. This is why I hate flying.

I try to chew gum and yawn and sometimes it works but my ears fill with pressure again in just a few minutes.

Isn't there a better way to keep the eustachian tubes open during flights?

anon297643
Post 1

What is the function of the Eustachian tube?

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