There are a variety of unusual sounds and noises that occur in our ears and many different reasons why we experience these sounds and sensations. One example of such an unusual sound is a cracking or popping sound.
Why do my ears pop?
Several reasons can be attributed to ear popping or crackling in the ears. You may experience ear popping when you are riding a plane, experiencing the flu, or nursing a clogged nose.
In most cases, it is not a sign of anything harmful nor a symptom of a serious disease.
Ear popping sounds are usually just our ear tubes trying to balance the pressure difference.
However, if ear popping frequently occurs, makes you lose sleep, gives you severe discomfort, and is accompanied by pain or other issues, it can adversely affect a person’s life and may also indicate an underlying disease. It is advised not to ignore such symptoms.
A person suffering from continual ear popping may have excessive ear wax, a sinus or viral infection, or middle ear fluid. Any of these causes could point to a deeper cause.
Causes of Ear Popping
The crackling in your ear can be caused by a multitude of things, but one of the most common reasons is a change in the pressure of your ear drum. This exemplifies the sensitive nature of our ears and the complexities involved in their functioning.
If you have ever been on an airplane, gone scuba diving, climbed a mountain, or even sneezed when you had a sinus infection, then you probably have experienced your ears popping. This is another example of the ear tubes reacting to pressure changes.
These are almost always temporary scenarios that immediately get better when you pop your ears.
There are, however, other instances when your ears crack or pop that can be indicative of a deeper issue. Examples of these possible causes are as follows:
- Eustachian tube dysfunction
The Eustachian tube is a small narrow tube that connects the middle part of your ear to the back of your upper nose and throat. The Eustachian tube allows airflow to your eardrum, acting as an essential ingredient for maintaining equilibrium in ear pressure. When there is a sudden change in that pressure, your ears usually need to pop to resolve the pressure imbalance. The popping sensation is safe and not cause for alarm.
Most of the time, your Eustachian tubes are closed. When you do certain motions like chew, yawn, or swallow, they open up. When the Eustachian tubes fail to open or shut properly, you may have Eustachian tube dysfunction, which could contribute greatly to ear popping.
Other than popping, some other signs that you need to take note of include:
- Fullness or congestion in your ear
- Ear pain or infection
- Hearing loss or muffled hearing
- Dizziness or vertigo
Some of the reasons that your Eustachian tubes may malfunction include infection, allergies, inflamed tonsils, irritants in the air, nasal polyps, or tumors. Any of these issues can cause inflammation or a physical blockage of the tubes.
- Acute otitis media
Acute otitis media is a fancy way of saying that you have an ear infection. Acute otitis media is much more common in children than adults, but it can happen at any age.
The Eustachian tube dysfunction described above is one of the major causes of middle ear infections because the tubes become narrowed, blocked, or have fluid accumulate in them subsequently causing infection.
The symptoms of a middle ear infection include ear pain, difficulty hearing, or fluid draining from the ear.
Children may experience even more severe symptoms including fever, headache, irritability, lower appetite, or trouble sleeping.
- Earwax buildup
Ear wax, or cerumen, is produced by your ear to clean, protect, and lubricate your ears in a natural way. Ear wax is made in the outer ear canal where special glands produce it and usually, it either falls out or is washed away in the normal routine of life.
Sometimes, however, you produce too much and the earwax begins to build up in your ear. In many cases of excessive earwax, popping or crackling in the ear is experienced.
If you suspect an earwax buildup is the culprit for your ear popping issues, a visit to an audiologist would be a good idea. Instead of trying to get rid of an earwax blockage by using an unsafe, pointed object to get rid of it, it would be best to have an audiologist take a look and perform earwax removal. Audiologists have the tools to thoroughly check your ears and remove earwax safely.
- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders
Your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is what connects your jawbone to your skull. Any time you have an injury in this area the result may be a TMJ disorder. If you have a TMJ disorder, you will probably feel and hear a clicking noise especially since the joint is directly adjacent to both of your ears.
- Middle ear myoclonus (MEM)
Middle ear myoclonus (MEM) is a condition characterized by involuntary contractions of the muscles in the middle ear. This can lead to symptoms like rhythmic ear clicking or popping sounds. Individuals with MEM may experience these noises due to abnormal contractions of the tensor tympani or stapedius muscles in the middle ear.
If you suspect you have middle ear myoclonus and it’s causing persistent ear popping or other symptoms, it’s essential to consult with an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist or an audiologist. They can conduct a thorough evaluation, potentially using diagnostic tools like tympanometry or imaging studies, and recommend appropriate management strategies, which may include medications or, in some cases, surgical intervention.
Seeking professional advice ensures accurate diagnosis and targeted treatment for this specific ear-related condition.
What Are The Treatment Options For Ear Popping?
The treatment for ear popping depends on the reason why they are making such sounds or mechanisms. They might require detailed medical care for an effective remedy.
As mentioned above, if it is just a case of pressure change or another simple cause, the popping may actually clear your ears and fix the problem resulting in no health risk.
When the popping sensation is actually an underlying condition of another health issue, intervention may be necessary as follows:
- Antibiotics to treat an infection.
- Professional earwax removal. We recommend against using a cotton swab or other item that you insert into your ear to try and clean it out as this may inadvertently make the issue worse.
- Small tubes can be placed in your ears to help equalize pressure and drain fluid. This is more common in children but it also happens occasionally in adults.
- A bite guard will sometimes provide relief for people who suffer from TMJ.
- Prescription medications for the relief of TMJ pain.
- The Valsalva maneuver is a technique used to equalize pressure in the ears. To perform it, close your mouth, pinch your nostrils shut, and gently exhale as if trying to blow through your nose. This helps open the Eustachian tubes, relieving pressure and allowing the ears to pop. It’s commonly used during activities like flying, scuba diving or experiencing changes in altitude.
- In extreme cases, surgery is needed to cure TMJ issues.
Swallowing Techniques to Relieve Ear Pressure
Chewing gum or sucking on candy can also encourage frequent swallowing. They can provide assistance to unblock your ears during plane descent or when you are traveling to locations of higher altitudes.
These actions help regulate air pressure in the middle ear, preventing discomfort and the sensation of blocked ears.
Incorporating these simple swallowing techniques is particularly useful for those susceptible to ear issues while flying or experiencing changes in elevation.
Nasal Decongestion Methods
Nasal decongestion methods can help relieve congestion and improve breathing. Over-the-counter nasal sprays containing oxymetazoline or saline solution can reduce swelling in nasal passages. Steam inhalation, using a bowl of hot water or a humidifier, can also ease congestion by moisturizing the nasal passages.
Saline nasal rinses help clear mucus and irritants. Additionally, staying hydrated, using mentholated ointments, and applying warm compresses to the face can provide relief.
Consultation with a healthcare professional is advisable for persistent nasal issues or concerns.
Jaw Exercises for Eustachian Tube Function
Performing specific jaw exercises can contribute to the improved function of the Eustachian tubes, which connect the middle ear to the back of the throat. One effective exercise involves moving the jaw as if chewing gum, ensuring a wide range of motion.
Another method is gently opening and closing the mouth while tilting the head from side to side. These exercises may promote the natural movement of the Eustachian tubes, facilitating better drainage and equalizing pressure in the ears. It’s important to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new exercise routine, especially if there are pre-existing jaw or ear conditions.
Over-the-Counter Solutions for Ear Popping
Over-the-counter solutions for ear popping primarily focus on addressing issues related to Eustachian tube dysfunction and pressure regulation. Decongestant nasal sprays containing oxymetazoline can help reduce nasal congestion, indirectly aiding in Eustachian tube function. Antihistamines may be beneficial if allergies contribute to ear issues.
Additionally, saline nasal sprays or rinses can moisturize nasal passages. Ear drops with a glycerin or hydrogen peroxide base can assist in breaking down earwax that might affect ear pressure.
It’s important to use these products as directed and consult a healthcare professional if ear popping persists or worsens. Always follow packaging instructions, read the information packet, and be cautious to avoid potential adverse reactions.
How To Prevent Ear Popping
It is difficult to predict when and why your ears might pop or crackle, but if it is a recurring issue for you, there are some things you can do to prevent it from continuing. Balancing your ear health can be tricky, but understanding the underlying problems causing this phenomenon is the first step.
Prevent respiratory infections
The common cold, flu, or sinus infections can often lead to Eustachian tube dysfunction. One reason this occurs can be due to bacteria in your system, leading to these infections. Washing your hands, not sharing personal items, and staying away from others who are sick are all good approaches to reducing your risk of infection.
Stay away from environmental irritants
Imbalance in various components such as bacteria can be one of the triggers. For instance, if you are allergic to dogs but not plants, you do not need to worry about being outside but may choose to stay away from homes with pets.
Do not use cotton swabs in your ears.
Regardless of whether you suffer from ear popping or not, we always advise you to avoid using cotton swabs in your ears. A cotton swab simply pushes the wax deeper into your eardrum and increases the chance of complications such as problems with your hearing. If you believe you need to address impacted earwax, an audiologist can perform earwax removal safely.
Ear Popping and Air Travel
Ear popping during air travel is a common issue caused by changes in air pressure. As an airplane ascends or descends, the pressure in the cabin changes, affecting the pressure in the middle ear. To mitigate this and balance the ear pressure, passengers can perform techniques like the Valsalva maneuver, where they pinch their nostrils shut and gently exhale.
Chewing gum, swallowing, or using specialized earplugs designed for air travel can also help regulate pressure. Staying hydrated is essential, as dehydration can exacerbate ear discomfort. If individuals have pre-existing ear conditions, consulting a healthcare professional before flying is advisable to ensure a smoother travel experience.
Ear Popping and Tinnitus
Ear popping and tinnitus are two distinct but sometimes interconnected auditory sensations. Ear popping commonly occurs due to pressure changes in the Eustachian tubes, often experienced during activities like air travel or changes in altitude.
On the other hand, tinnitus is characterized by the perception of noise in the ears, such as ringing, buzzing, or hissing, without an external source.
In some cases, conditions like Eustachian tube dysfunction or middle ear issues can contribute to both ear popping and tinnitus.
If you’re experiencing persistent or bothersome symptoms, it’s crucial to consult with an audiologist or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.
They can conduct a comprehensive evaluation to identify the underlying causes and recommend appropriate management strategies tailored to your specific condition. Seeking professional advice ensures a thorough understanding of your auditory health and targeted interventions for symptom relief.
Ear Popping: When to see a doctor
As mentioned above, if your ear occasionally pops or if you experience crackling in your ear due to pressure changes, it is probably not serious.
There are some occasions, however, when ear popping is life-altering or abnormal. Bacteria in your ear or problems with your auditory system could manifest in this way. In these cases a visit to the doctor is necessary.
Below are some signs you should seek professional health advice:
- Crackling or popping that interferes with your day-to-day activities or makes it hard for you to hear normal sounds.
- Severe symptoms that are persistent or that keep coming back.
- An ear infection that lasts more than one day.
- Ear discharge, especially if it contains blood or pus.
While occasional ear popping is usually harmless, persistent issues may denote an imbalance in the ear that is causing hearing problems.
If you experience any of the symptoms above, schedule an appointment with an audiologist or doctor right away.
Ear Popping FAQs
Can ear popping be a sign of an underlying medical condition?
Yes, persistent or recurrent ear popping can be a sign of an underlying medical condition, such as Eustachian tube dysfunction, ear infections caused by bacteria, or sinus issues. If ear popping is accompanied by pain, hearing loss, or other concerning symptoms, it is advisable to seek medical attention to identify and address the root cause of the problem.
It’s essential to address chronic ear issues promptly to prevent potential complications and safeguard hearing health.
Can ear popping lead to hearing loss?
Conditions like Eustachian tube dysfunction, middle ear infections, earache, or changes in air pressure when you are in a place can contribute to both ear popping and hearing loss.
Consultation with a healthcare professional or an audiologist is advisable for persistent or worsening symptoms. These medical professionals can address any questions you may have, give sound advice, and propose proper medication to address that ear-popping feeling.
If symptoms persist or worsen, consult with a healthcare professional for personalized advice and treatment options. They can run some tests and provide a detailed diagnosis to help you with ear popping and ear congestion.
How can I treat ear popping caused by allergies or sinus congestion?
- Nasal Decongestants: Over-the-counter nasal sprays with oxymetazoline can reduce nasal congestion, helping to relieve pressure in the ears and sinuses.
- Antihistamines: Take antihistamines to address allergy-related symptoms that may contribute to sinus congestion. If you are prone to colds and allergies, antihistamines can be of great help.
- Saline Nasal Rinses: Use saline nasal sprays or rinses to moisturize and clear nasal passages, reducing congestion.
- Steam Inhalation: Inhale steam from a bowl of hot water or use a humidifier to ease sinus congestion.
- Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of fluids to keep mucus thin and prevent further congestion. Be mindful of your diet as well, try to avoid food that can trigger allergies in your body.
Over-the-counter remedies may provide temporary relief, but if the issue persists, it’s crucial to consult with an audiologist.
In summary, persistent ear popping due to allergies or sinus congestion can impact your hearing and overall ear health. While ear popping is not linked to life-threatening diseases, it can still be a common cause of concern that should be addressed to avoid further damage.
An audiologist can assess your ear health, identify any underlying causes, and recommend tailored solutions to ensure long-term well-being and optimal hearing.
Don’t delay seeking professional help from an audiologist for a comprehensive evaluation. Regular check-ups can help balance your ear health and proactively address any potential problems.
An audiologist can assess your ear health, identify any underlying causes, and recommend tailored treatments to ensure long-term well-being and optimal hearing.
Whether it’s ear popping, earaches, ringing in the ears, or other auditory-related problems, it’s best to ask an audiologist!