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Do sounds become muffled when you’ve got a cold? Does your ear feel blocked after a long swim? Sounds like you’re suffering from clogged ear, an annoying condition that can make hearing a challenge. While a clogged ear can indicate an ear infection, it could also be a sign of wax build-up, a change in air pressure, or a sinus infection. Once you discover what’s causing your clogged ear, it will be easier to treat and likely prevent it from happening again in the future.
Clogged Ears Symptoms
Clogged ears typically cause irritation or discomfort in the form of a full feeling in the ears and muffled hearing. They don’t usually cause pain, unless you’re suffering from an ear infection. Clogged ears can lead to dizziness, so be sure not to make any fast movements if you’re struggling with this symptom.
Clogged Ear Causes
While there can be multiple factors behind a clogged ear, the most common cause lies in your sinuses. Since your sinuses are connected to your ears, it’s no surprise that congested sinuses can trickle into the ear canal, affecting the pressure inside. Whether you’re suffering from a cold or seasonal allergies, runny nose, congestion, and sinus infections are all to blame for a clogged ear.
Other causes of clogged ears include:
- Eustachian tube blockage or ear infection The Eustachian tube, which is also known as the auditory tube, connects the nasopharynx (space at the back of the nose) to the middle ear. A blockage of the Eustachian tube can cause symptoms such as popping, clicking, fullness, pain, or ringing in the ear. When the blockage occurs, fluid and mucus that should flow freely from the ear to the back of the throat becomes trapped in the middle ear, causing a clogged ear. These blockages are commonly caused by allergies, a cold, the flu, a sinus infection, or a structural problem in the ear. This type of blockage can easily cause infection.|
- High altitude Ever been in an elevator and suffered from a full feeling in your ears? How about while flying or scuba diving? A rapid change in air pressure can cause a clogged ear. Here’s how: your Eustachian tube is in charge of equalizing the pressure in your ear. When it’s exposed to a rapid change in altitude, however, it can’t always keep up, which can lead to a clogged ear.
- Wax build-up Ear wax is smelly and sticky, but it’s essential for good ear health. Ear wax’s main jobs include: keeping out dirt and debris and cleaning the ear canal. When earwax builds up and becomes dry, it can cause a clogged ear along with ear pain, ringing, and dizziness. The main reason for this blockage—using cotton swabs. Instead of cleaning the ear, the swab pushes earwax even deeper into the canal, causing a clogged ear. As my kids’ pediatrician always said, “the biggest thing you should put in your ear is your elbow.”
- A tumor An acoustic neuroma is a noncancerous growth that grows slowly over years. It develops on the cranial nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain. As they grow, these tumors can press on nearby cranial nerves and possibly the brain stem, depending on their size. The first symptoms people usually notice are: gradual hearing loss, a clogged ear, and ringing in the ear
- Swimmer’s ear For some, swimming can cause an ear infection. Water that remains in the ear after swimming can result in a clogged ear. Also known as swimmer’s ear, this blockage can encourage the growth of infection from bacteria or fungus.
Clogged Ear Treatments
A clogged ear will often unblock itself as the pressure regulates. In cases where the clogged ear is persistent, however, you may want to try other options to improve your symptoms. Here are a few suggestions:
|1. Drink plenty of fluids||The more fluid you consume, the thinner the mucus in your sinuses. This encourages mucus to drain instead of building up as congestion.|
|2. Take a decongestant||Since the leading cause of clogged ear is sinus congestion, relieve it with an over-the-counter tablet or nasal spray. Beware: Using nasal spray for more than three days can cause a rebound effect, meaning it will cause even more of a build-up.|
|3. Keep nasal passages moist||Keeping the nose moist can help ease pressure and pain. Use a saline nasal spray several times a day. Tip: Turn on a humidifier at night or steam yourself in a hot shower for 10 to 15 minutes.|
|4. Blow your nose||Be gentle when blowing your nose so you don’t force any mucus back into the nasal passage, which can lead to infection. Block one nostril and blow through the other side. Then repeat.|
|5. Don’t get too hot or too cold||Extreme temperatures can make sinus and clogged ear problems worse. Avoid getting too hot or too cold if your ears are bothering you. That means no winter-time run or outdoor yoga in summer’s intense heat.|
|6. Stay up straight||Leaning forward will cause sinus and ear pressure to worsen. Skip the massage and downward dog until you’re feeling better.|
|7. Avoid vices||Caffeine, alcohol, salt and tobacco should all be avoided as they are diuretics and can alter circulation, which can affect the ears.|
|8. The Valsalva maneuver||This maneuver involves forcing an exhale against a closed airway. Here’s how to do it:
1. Take a deep breath
2. Pinch your nose
3. Keep your moth closed while slowly and gently exhaling through your nose.
TIP: Don’t blow too hard or you can damage your eardrum.
|9. Remove trapped water||Insert a clean index finger into the ear and gently move it up and down to help remove trapped water. You could also try using a hair dryer on a low heat setting.|
|10. Remove extra wax||Use a medicine dropper to add a few drops (three max) of warm mineral oil, baby oil or hydrogen peroxide to the clogged ear. Keep the head tilted for a few seconds, then return to an upright position. The wax should soften and flush from the ear.|
|11. Exercise your jaw||Swallow, yawn, or chew gum to open your Eustachian tubes.|
|12. Anti-inflammatory medication||Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories such as NSAIDs like Advil may help relieve the pain and inflammation caused by an ear infection.|
|13. Antihistamines||Taking antihistamines can help reduce the symptoms of allergies, thereby eliminating sinus congestion.|
|14. Antibiotics||Chronic ear infections may require treatment with antibiotics.|
|15. Ventilation tubes||If the Eustachian tube blockage is severe, a doctor may recommend surgically implanting ventilation tubes to help drain the fluid and relieve pressure.|
When to See A Doctor for A Clogged Ear
In most cases, a clogged ear will resolve itself in time. Once you’ve cleared up your sinus issues, your clogged ear should go the way of that annoying pimple you had last week. If your suffering won’t let up and you’re suffering from any of the following symptoms, it’s time to seek help from a medical professional:
- Pain in the head, face, or ear
- Swelling in the head, face, or ear
- Symptoms that recur or last for over a week
Fly More Comfortably with a Clogged Ear
If you must fly while congested, take a nasal or oral decongestant half an hour before take off. This will help to both relieve and prevent further pressure. If you’re still suffering form a clogged ear, try the Valsalva Maneuver (see the “Clogged Ear Treatments” Chart to learn how). Also, chew gum or suck on a hard candy, especially during take off and landing, to open your Eustachian tubes.
For related reading, please visit these posts:
- Preventing and Treating Ear Infections in Children
- Middle Ear Infection Symptoms
- Throat Cancer Symptoms: Take Heed of These Serious Signs
- Zinc: Does It Really Fight Off a Cold?
This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated.