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General Medical Questions
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Question : What is the cause and cure of ear congestion?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Mary Pickett, M.D. is an Associate professor at Oregon Health & Science University where she is a primary care doctor for adults. She supervises and educates residents in the field of Internal Medicine, for outpatient and hospital care. She is a Lecturer for Harvard Medical School and a Senior Medical Editor for Harvard Health Publications.

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January 15, 2014
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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.

The eustacean tube should have free passage of air. But when this tube becomes inflamed, it can swell shut. This can happen when there is an allergy or a virus infection (like the common cold) that creates congestion in 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, allergy medicine and antibiotics (if there is infection). 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.

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