If you’ve ever ridden in an airplane or driven over a road with significant changes in altitude, you’ve probably experienced the feeling that your ears were full or needed to pop. In children this plugged feeling may be a symptom of otitis media with effusion, an on-going condition that often required surgery to placing tubes into the eardrums. Now, an optional treatment may replace this surgery with simple treatments that can be done at home.
What causes pressure in the ears?
How long will plugged ears last?
In the case of a simple plane trip or car ride, symptoms of a blocked ear typically last from a few seconds to a few minutes and go away without treatment. For some people with chronic sinus problems or smaller than normal Eustachian tubes, including young children, the tubes can become too narrow to allow air to pass. This can cause a vacuum that seals off the middle ear and draws fluid into the ear which causes more pressure and greater loss of hearing. This condition is known as OME or otitis media with effusion. In children, OME can also cause serious learning difficulties as their ability to learn speech and language is hampered by reduced hearing.
What is the treatment for plugged ears?
Treatment for plugged ears is directed at getting air flowing through the Eustachian tubes so the pressure in the ears can equalize. Oral decongestants or nasal sprays with antihistamines may help. Some people are able to get their ears to pop by taking a deep breath, pinching the nose closed, closing the mouth, and then trying to blow the pressure out. Chewing gum or moving the muscles that control the lower jaw may also help the ears to pop.
For patients with OME or ongoing Eustachian tube dysfunction, treatment sometimes includes surgery to insert tubes into the eardrum to help drain the fluid from inside the middle ear and relieve the pressure. This can be costly, and may need to be done multiple times if symptoms recur.
Alternate treatment for plugged ears
Researchers supported by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) designed a device that can be used at home to relieve middle ear pressure without surgery or tubes in the ears. The device, called the EarPopper, expands on the recognized Politzer maneuver to open plugged ears by injecting air into the nose as the patient swallows. The problem with the manual Politzer maneuver was getting the timing just right to inject the air as the swallow was happening. The EarPopper solves this by providing a continuous flow of controlled air at the selected pressure. The device is hand-held and battery operated and can be used at home with minimal training. The NIDCD calls this device “an effective way to drain the middle ear of fluid and restore hearing”.