What and Why?
Each ear occupies a cave in the side bone of your head, with a long narrow inside entrance leading from a valve at the back of your nose. There would be a large entrance from the ear-hole on the outside of your head, but this is covered by your ear-drum. Vibration of this double thickness of skin enables you to hear.
When the two valves in your nose are working well, the air in the caves (your middle ears) stays around the same pressure as outside so the ear-drums are relaxed and fully sensitive to sound. However, the ear cave is also a crude lung, slowly absorbing air into the circulation; the valves open regularly to make up for this. You can feel them easing when you swallow or yawn, sometimes with improvement in your hearing. This is most marked as the pressure outside increases or when you descend in a lift or ’plane. Air leaks out easily past the valves on the way up but they must be opened actively on the way down to let it back in.
During a cold the skin of your nose tends to swell, and it is up to you to keep that as local as possible. If the valve gets involved, it becomes sticky and needs more pressure to open it, which may stretch the ear-drum enough to be painful before the valve opening pressure is reached. This kind of fleeting earache lasts up to half an hour at a time and is not too severe; but worse may follow.
The lining of the ear tube does not have to swell much before it blocks the air passage completely, just where it passes through the bone. That blockage can last for days. The air goes on dissolving into blood vessels in the cave but cannot be replaced from the outside any longer, so that a partial vacuum forms which sucks the ear-drum in.
Alternatively, the lining of the cave runs, like the skin of the nose, and makes mucus which collects and is trapped there, pressing the ear-drum outwards. Either way the pain is miserable, weakening and protracted. The ear-drum often bursts, releasing the mucus and pain. It heals fast when the cave dries unless germs get in first. Infection is rare otherwise.
What can I do?
Advice to maintain and maximise your health
1. Work on preventing colds and limiting their extent. Earache is much less likely if colds are well contained.
2. Chewing action: Children need to chew hard and long on unrefined cereals, raw vegetables, dried fruit, liquorice root and the like from an early age.
This challenges the jaws and their muscles to become strong and bulky. That broadens the whole face: a wide nose leaves the ear-tube valves unobstructed.
Children who only ever eat soft foods grow up with fine jaws and narrow noses, which block far too easily.
3. Learn how to ‘blow’ the ear-valves, and do it regularly.
Pinch your nostrils firmly, then pressurize your nose and swallow. Get a child to try blowing up a new balloon while you pinch his nose for him. It may still work if he laughs instead!
4. Pain relief: When earache happens give plenty of pain relief.
- Warm oil or Bach Rescue Remedy in the outside ear passage may help so long as the ear is not already running. A hot water bottle to lie on is usually soothing.
- Homoeopathic Arnica tincture or tablets often reduce panic if not the pain. Give however much Codein and Aspirin it takes; you can safely double an ineffective first dose, that gave no side-effects, after half an hour.
5. Medicines: Accept decongestant medicine to shrink the ear lining but decline an antibiotic unless the ear is running or you are terribly ill.
- Mastoiditis is rare, but infected discharge stops the torn ear-drum healing over; the two layers may instead form a button-hole, making the hole permanent. It is well worth a course of Penicillin to avoid that.
6. If the drum does not burst the catarrh may persist, with prolonged deafness. Decongestants are no good as long-term treatment: persevere with ear-valve exercises.
7. Work on preventing chronic catarrh. If the doctor suggests a grommet operation to restore the hearing, consider it: a plastic tube keeps a cut in the drum open until rejected by it after many months. You should manage to shed the grommets and any further need of them within a year or so.