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What are Eustachian Tubes?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

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.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By fBoyle — On May 15, 2013

@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.

By ddljohn — On May 14, 2013

@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.

By candyquilt — On May 13, 2013

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?

By anon297643 — On Oct 16, 2012

What is the function of the Eustachian tube?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
Learn more
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