Clogged ears are bothersome. When your ears feel like they’re full or have something pushing on them, it’s hard to ignore the distraction. More than being a nuisance, though, a clogged ear is a sign that something isn’t right.
If you have a blocked or clogged ear, you might have one or more of these symptoms:
- Muffled hearing
- Ear pain
- Fluid leaking from the ear
- Crackling sound in the ear
- Sense of pressure
- Ringing in the ear
Muffled hearing makes you feel like you’re straining for normal sound. You might feel as though there’s a thick blanket covering your ears. You may also have pain or ringing in your ears, which could be a sign of other hearing issues.
Even though a plugged-up ear is usually temporary, it can become permanent. You may need to schedule a doctor visit to rule out serious issues that can lead to lasting damage. Before you treat your ear problem, though, you need to know the cause and how it can affect your health.
Causes of a Clogged Ear
There are many causes for why you have a plugged or clogged ear. While some causes are minor troubles that go away by themselves, others can point to more serious health conditions.
Ear Wax Blockage
An ear canal blocked with too much wax is one of the most common causes of a clogged ear. Ear wax is part of a normal process that helps to protect your eardrum and ear canal from infections and damage. As it combines with dead skin cells, ear wax moves from the base of your ear canal, near your eardrum, to your outer ear before drying and falling away.
If your ear canal makes too much wax too quickly, it can’t shed that wax on its own. Instead, it builds up and becomes impacted. You can also get ear wax blockage from pushing your finger or a cotton swab into your ear when trying to clean it. This is a common cause that can do much more harm than good.
Impacted ear wax can cause muffled hearing and a tickling or pressure sensation in your ear. It can also cause dizziness or a dull ache that doesn’t go away.
Sinus issues are another cause of ear blockage. Your sinuses are hollow cavities that connect to your nose. They produce mucus to protect the nasal lining. Your sinuses also connect to your ears and the back of the throat.
When you get an infection from a cold or respiratory illness, your sinuses become inflamed and put pressure on your ears. This is sinusitis. You can also get ear pressure from inflamed sinuses that aren’t infected. Tissue growths can lead to sinusitis and a clogged feeling in your ears. So can health issues like cystic fibrosis or auto-immune disorders.
Loud noises can damage the inner parts of your ear and lead to muffled hearing. Sometimes noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is temporary. You might only feel blockage or ringing in the ears for a few days to a few weeks. Other times the damage is permanent and causes partial or full hearing loss.
Exposure to sounds at or below 70 decibels (dB) is part of normal life, but some sounds, especially those at 85 dB or higher, aren’t ear-friendly. Loud sounds from music, machinery, fireworks, and motorcycles can damage your hearing. Even household tools like lawn mowers and leaf blowers can be too powerful for your inner ear.
Noise damages the sensory hair cells in your cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. Once damaged, these hair cells don’t grow back. Noise might also damage the bones in your middle ear or your eardrum itself. Whenever you’re in a noisy environment or are using loud equipment, remember to wear ear protection. Your hearing is precious, and it needs proper care.
An inner ear disorder, Meniere’s disease often starts in middle age, and it can happen throughout your life if not managed carefully. Usually, it affects one ear at a time.
Meniere’s disease can make you feel very dizzy, like everything is spinning, and you could fall and hurt yourself. Dizzy spells can last for several minutes to several hours. During this time, you may have pressure in your ear, hearing loss, or ringing in the ear.
Middle Ear Infections
Ears are delicate organs, and they can become infected. Infections often build up pressure and fluid in your ears, which can make your hearing feel clogged.
Bacteria and viruses can travel up the eustachian tube, a hollow tube that connects the ear to your sinuses and back of the throat. The inflamed tube creates swelling and pressure. Sometimes fluid builds up in the middle ear as well.
Like bacteria and viruses, allergies can cause swelling and fluid to build in the eustachian tube. Allergies often cause sneezing and a runny nose, which can increase the pressure you feel in your ears.
Acoustic neuroma is a rare condition where a slow-growing tumor grows on your auditory nerve. This tumor is non-cancerous and grows from Schwann cells located on the nerve. You often have hearing loss from this tumor, and you may have ringing in your ear or feel pressure. Since this tumor presses on the nerve, it can give you dizzy spells as well.
The slow growth of the tumor doesn’t lead to rapid changes, but it can push on other nerves or even the brainstem if you leave it untreated.
Most people have felt a temporary clogged feeling in their ears from elevation changes. You might feel pressure in your ears during airplane takeoff. You might feel it when driving up a moderate to steep hill. Along with pressure, you might feel dizziness or ear pain.
This feeling, called ear barotrauma, happens when the air pressure outside your ear differs from that inside your ear. Usually, the ears adjust themselves when the eustachian tube evens out the pressure. This is when you may feel a popping sensation in your ears.
Treatments for a Clogged Ear
Home remedies are the most common way to treat your clogged ears, but they aren’t useful with all causes. Sometimes, home remedies work for one person but not another. You may need to try several remedies to find one that works for your condition.
Ear drops work to soften ear wax that has built up in your ear canal. You can buy over-the-counter (OTC) ear drops that contain carbamide peroxide or hydrogen peroxide and use them as directed.
To use the drops, try to lie on your side with your blocked ear facing upward. Drop a few drops into your ear, and lie still for about five minutes to let the medication take effect. After five minutes, you can sit up and tilt your head, letting the liquid and wax pour out into a tissue.
Never use cotton swabs in your ears. Trying to remove wax with a cotton swab can push the wax further into your ear.
Warm compresses and steam can help to unclog your ears and open the eustachian tubes. They’re also helpful for pain relief.
To use a warm compress, grab a face cloth or face towel and soak it in warm water. Squeeze out the excess water and fold the cloth in half or quarters. You can then press the cloth against your ear to let the warm, moist air drain off any congestion. Steam from a shower can also help to open your eustachian tubes and sinuses.
The Valsalva maneuver can help you unclog your eustachian tubes and even out the pressure. It is most useful with altitude changes if your ears aren’t equalizing on their own.
To use the Valsalva maneuver, pinch your nostrils closed, close your mouth, and gently exhale for a few seconds. You want your cheeks to puff up a bit. Just make sure you don’t blow too hard because you could harm your eardrum.
Unpinch your nose, open your mouth, and take a normal breath. Move your jaw and swallow several times to help open the blocked eustachian tube.
If you have clogged ears, you may get relief with over-the-counter (OTC) medications. These medications can help if you have a clogged ear from an infection or from allergies. Cold medications have decongestants that help to shrink blood vessels in your nose. Less blood flow means less pressure on your sinuses and your ears.
Cold and allergy medications also have antihistamines. Histamines are chemicals that make your body produce mucus in the sinuses. Antihistamines are drugs that block histamines and help to open your sinuses.
If you take OTC medications, make sure you follow the instructions on the label. You should also talk to your doctor to find out if these drugs can interact with other prescription medications.
Remember that home remedies aren’t the perfect solution. If you have an infection, you will probably require a prescription as well. If you have noise damage that’s become permanent, your ears may need supplemental support from hearing aids.
When to See a Specialist
Good hearing is important. Since medical issues often cause a clogged ear, you want to keep your doctor informed. Don’t ignore symptoms if you feel like you’re straining to hear sounds or if you have dizziness or ringing in the ear. These symptoms could mean that you have a health condition that needs specific treatment.
Talk to your primary care doctor and let them know your concerns. Your doctor may point you to an otolaryngologist, also known as an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, for medical issues. For hearing loss or ringing in your ears, your doctor may also recommend that you visit an audiologist for specialist care. To check your hearing before heading to your appointment, you can also take an online hearing test and get helpful results in minutes.
Clogged ears can make it difficult to hear everyday sounds. Most of the time, you feel like you have a blanket covering your ears, but you may have an earache, fluid leaking, and dizziness as well.
While there are many causes of clogged ears, there are also many treatments. Some treatments are best for minor blockages from wax or fluid, while others are better for treating infections and other issues.
If your clogged ear has resulted in permanent hearing loss, you may need hearing aids to help you regain your hearing. Consider affordable hearing aids like those from MDHearing, where you can get FDA-registered models for as low as $299 per pair—a major cost-savings over the national average of $4,600.
Check your hearing for free with this 5-minute test and see how we can help.
TAKE ONLINE HEARING TEST