Clogged ears can be a nuisance. There can be temporary pain and discomfort, it can be harder to hear, and sometimes you hear your voice inside your own head. Most of the time it is nothing more than an annoyance. However, a clogged ear can be caused by many things including but not limited to:
- Fluid in your eustachian tubes
- Ear wax
- Altitude changes
- Noise damage
When there is an obvious cause of clogged ears, it is possible to take simple steps to achieve relief. You could use a nasal spray, take a decongestant, chew food, yawn, use an ear irrigation kit, blow your nose gently, or use the Valsalva Maneuver (this is when you hold your nose, close your mouth, and blow, also referred to as “popping your ears”). Most of the time, the clogged feeling in your ears will go away with these simple steps.
On the other hand, clogged ears could also be indicative of deeper health problems. A lot of people try to handle clogged ears on their own only to find out that they do not have the knowledge or expertise to solve the problem because it is more involved than they realized.
Possible Causes Of Blocked Ears
There are plenty of possible causes of clogged ears as mentioned above, but the following is a list of the most common causes along with an explanation of why they happen.
- Eustachian tube blockage
One possible cause of a clogged ear has to do with fluid inside your eustachian tube. Your eustachian tube connects your middle ear with your throat. Mucus and fluid flows from the ear through the eustachian tube where it is swallowed. Sometimes, this process does not work and the fluid and mucus become trapped in the middle ear causing your ear to be clogged. This type of blockage usually accompanies an infection like the common cold, a sinus infection, or the flu. It is important to unclog the Eustachian tube when it is clogged otherwise and infection may occur.
- Higher altitude
Some people experience clogged ears after scuba diving, flying, driving up a mountain, or experiencing other sudden altitude changes. This can occur for either an increase or a decrease in altitude. A rapid change in air pressure outside of your body can actually cause blockages, including having the result that your ears feeling clogged. Your eustachian tube is responsible for equalizing the pressure in your middle ear, but higher altitudes can make it difficult to equalize the pressure. This often goes away when you get back to a normal altitude, but if it lasts more than one or two days you should see a doctor.
Earwax is your body’s way of keeping your ear clean and protected, but sometimes your body can make too much earwax and it can become impacted. If you believe that earwax is the cause of your clogged ears, the best thing to do is find a hearing healthcare professional to both diagnose and fix the problem.
- Acoustic neuroma
An acoustic neuroma is a benign growth that develops on the cranial nerve leading from the inner ear to the brain. Luckily, these growths are usually very small and very slow-growing, but as they get larger they can put pressure on your nerves. This can cause hearing loss, pain, ringing in the ear, and a feeling of your ear being clogged.
- Fluid in the ears
Fluid is the culprit for two potential reasons why your ear is clogged. In general, the wax in your ears keeps fluid from building up but these two conditions can allow fluid to build up and cause pain or clogging.
- Swimmer’s Ear: Your ears can become clogged from swimming, bathing, or any other moist environment where water enters your eustachian tubes and does not exit. The best thing to do when your ear is clogged is to try to unclog it yourself before it becomes infected. Here are some ways to clear the water:
- Tilt your head towards the side where the water is trapped and gently pull your earlobe.
- Use a warm compress to help encourage the water to drain naturally.
- Yawn, chew, or hold your nose with your fingers and blow gently.
- Middle Ear Infection: Both children and adults may experience clogged ears if they develop a middle ear infection due to a fluid buildup behind the eardrum. An infection like this can be painful but it generally clears up on its own if given time. If the pain is severe or you discharge fluid from your ear, you should see a doctor immediately.
- Sinus pressure
Your sinuses and ears are connected. Therefore inflamed sinuses or allergies can potentially have a noticeable effect on your ears. Clogged sinuses can cause pain in your ears, dizziness, and even clogged ears. If you are experiencing clogged ears because of sinus pressure or allergies, then you will possibly need medication for the discomfort to resolve.
- Noise Damage
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) occurs when the sensitive structures in the inner ear are damaged by sound. After a loud concert or sporting event, your ears can feel clogged and it can take a little time for your hearing to get back to normal. NIHL, however, is also the most common type of sensorineural hearing loss and this type of hearing loss can be permanent. NIHL can be caused by prolonged exposure to loud noises or a one-time exposure to an abnormally loud sound such as an explosion or blast. If you know you are going into a loud environment, there are some things you can do to prevent permanent hearing loss including wearing ear plugs, turning down the volume in situations where you have control (such as home electronics), and moving away from the source of the loud noise.
Treatments For A Clogged Ear
A variety of methods are available for treatment of clogged ears. Selecting the correct treatment depends on how or why your ears were affected to begin with, so diagnosis is key. It is also important to know which part of your ear is clogged so that you have a better idea of how to treat it. The following are some easy things you can try when your ears are clogged:
- Use the Valsalva maneuver
The valsalva maneuver is a fancy name for popping your ears. To accomplish this, simply hold your nose, close your mouth, and blow. The pressure that you create by trying to force air out with no release point could be strong enough to unclog your ears. This is an effective trick to use when flying.
- Inhale steam or use a warm compress
Sometimes all you need is a warm compress placed on your clogged ear or a hot shower with a lot of steam. The warm compress can draw out excess wax. Alternatively the steam from a hot shower can enter your ear and help force the wax out.
- Dislodge trapped fluid
When your ear feels clogged because of trapped fluid, you should simply dislodge the fluid. Insert your finger into your ear, do not put pressure on it, and very gently move your finger up and down. This simple movement can help dislodge trapped fluid, but it is vital that you do not insert your finger too deep into your ear. You could also use a hair dryer on a low setting a few inches from your ear to dry to dry the water up.
- Take over-the-counter (OTC) medication
You can find OTC medicine in most grocery or drug stores that include decongestants or antihistamines. Following the directions on the label can often clear sinus pressure or help with a cold or other infection.
- Ear drops
Two types of ear drops exist for sale at grocery or drug stores. Swimmers’ ear drops help dry up trapped water whereas ear irrigation kits help to soften and subsequently remove unwanted ear wax. The important thing to remember when putting drops in your ear is to follow the instructions on the label and to not use hydrogen peroxide.
Clogged Ear: When Should You See A Doctor?
It can actually be a little tricky to decide when to see a doctor because of a clogged ear. Most people want to take care of the issue on their own and would rather try home remedies before taking the time to schedule an appointment and see a doctor. Because your ear is crucial for both balance and hearing, it is preferable to err on the side of caution. As mentioned above, there are quite a few simple and inexpensive things you can try at home that should unclog your ear, but if those things do not work, you should contact an audiologist.