Q: I have recurrent ear congestion. What causes it? How can I treat it?
A: The middle ear -- found behind the ear drum -- contains air. This air is normally able to enter and exit through the eustacean tube. This is a small canal between the middle ear and the back of the nose.
Sometimes, the eustacean tube can be "sucked" closed, when there is a rapid change in pressure. This is more common during air travel. Young children are more likely to have the eustacean tubes close than adults. So they have more frequent ear complaints from ear congestion.
If the eustacean tube is closed, air behind the eardrum is gradually replaced by fluid. This fluid does not drain easily and it can stay for a while.
Congestion in the ear may involve infection, called "otitis media." Or, the fluid may be sterile. In this case, the congestion is named "serous otitis." Either way, congestion in the ear can cause pain, temporary loss of hearing and clicking noises with a feeling of fullness in the ear.
Treatments for ear congestion can include decongestants and allergy medicine. If the cause is a bacterial ear infection, doctors usually prescribe an antibiotic. However, most ear infections are caused by viruses that are not killed by antibiotics.
Letting time pass helps, too. When air travel has caused ear congestion, symptoms can persist for weeks. But the eustacean tube almost always reopens on its own.
(Mary Pickett, M.D., is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, where she is a primary care doctor for adults. Dr. Pickett is a Lecturer for Harvard Medical School and a Senior Medical Editor for Harvard Health Publications.)
(For additional consumer health information, please visit http://www.health.harvard.edu.)
(c) 2014 PRESIDENT AND FELLOWS OF HARVARD COLLEGE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.