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It is common for people to experience sudden stuffiness in their ears which can make them slightly hard of hearing for as long as the condition persists. Asking everyone to repeat what they said because you failed to catch it the first time around can be frustrating.
But you can take comfort in the fact that such hearing impairment is usually short-lived. More often than not, you may experience this kind of diminished hearing on account of a clogged ear.
The sensation of a clogged ear is often brought on by the inability of the Eustachian tube to open and close properly, which in turn disrupts the pressure equalization between the middle ear and the external atmosphere.
Also, when the Eustachian tube that connects the nose to the ear does not open adequately, the earwax finds little release and keeps on accumulating within the middle ear, giving rise to a blockage.
Almost anyone can suffer from a clogged ear, but it affects children more frequently than adults, especially in the wake of a common cold or a nasal allergy.
In addition to being a hearing impediment, a clogged ear can affect your sense of balance and can be quite painful as well.
The time it takes for the ear clogging to go away completely depends upon the underlying cause. If your ears have become clogged due to altitude changes or water in the ears, the condition will resolve rather quickly.
However, ear blockages stemming from earwax accumulation or ear inflammation may take up to a week to clear, and this may not happen without additional help. The sooner you treat your clogged ears, the faster the symptoms resolve.
Causes of Clogged Ears
A number of rather innocuous factors can lead to clogged ears, such as:
- Pressure Differences: Because your ears are connected to your nose, nasal congestion due to a cold, allergies, or an infection can have a bearing on your hearing.
As a result of the stuffiness and swelling inside the nose and upper airway, the Eustachian tube may fail to open sufficiently, swell partly, or become completely shut.
The Eustachian tube is the ear’s natural drainage pathway into the throat, and any disturbance to it can lead to pressure changes within the ear, causing a feeling of fullness, dizziness, and even a mild earache.
- Common Cold: Viral infections such as the common cold cause increased mucous secretion and swelling, which often move up to the ear, blocking the ear tube (Eustachian tube).
- Middle Ear Infections: Even after a common cold infection has cleared, the ear tube may remain swollen for a couple of days, hindering the drainage of the infected fluid.
As a result, the secretions tend to back up in the ear and get trapped behind the eardrum, making it a breeding ground for viruses or bacteria.
This may give rise to a middle ear infection known as “otitis media,” which may be the result of your swollen ear tube being completely shut for several days.
- Earwax Impaction: The accumulation of excessive earwax inside the outer ear canal (outside of the eardrum) can lead to clogged ears.
People who use hearing aids are particularly prone to this problem as the placement of the hearing aids blocks the natural outlet for the wax to be drained out.
- Blowing the Nose: Exerting a great deal of force in blowing your nose can push sinus secretions into the ear tube.
- Changes in Altitude: Sudden increase in air pressure due to a change in altitude, as experienced when your flight makes a landing or during mountain driving, can cause clogged ears.
- Foreign Bodies Trapped in the Ear: Occasionally, small objects get lodged inside the outer ear canal, and this is often of our own doing.
Ear-cleaning tools such as q-tips are common culprits, which can push the wax in our ears deeper into the outer ear canal where it can become impacted.
Also, there are many cases of children inserting tiny items in their ears.
- Swimmer’s Ear: This condition is so named as it is most prevalent among swimmers. People who spend a lot of time in the water tend to get water trapped in their outer ear canal, which can result in an infection of the outer ear canal skin, causing swelling and a feeling of ear blockage.
Signs and Symptoms of Clogged Ears
A case of clogged ears is usually characterized by the following symptoms:
- Mild pain in the ears
- Increased pressure in the ears, like you, are underwater
- A feeling of fullness in the ears
- Ringing, clicking or popping noises in the ears
- Hearing problems, such as sounds may seem muffled
- Feeling a little dizzy
- Moderate to severe hearing loss
- A sense of disequilibrium in the body, which makes it difficult for you to keep your balance
Diagnosing Clogged Ears
To pin down the exact reason behind your ear blockage and to get a better understanding of your condition, your doctor will first inquire about your symptoms, any aggravating or mitigating factors, and any home treatments that you have tried.
This will be followed by a closer examination of your ear using a special tool called an otoscope, which is inserted into the outer ear canal.
This device gives your doctor an inside view of your ear canal and the state of your eardrum. He/she may also evaluate your hearing and other ear functions with some simple and painless tests.
It is important to determine the site of the problem, whether it is arising from the middle ear behind the eardrum or from the outer ear outside of the eardrum.
When the doctor has taken into account all the relevant factors, he/she will recommend the appropriate course of treatment to relieve the blockage.
Medical Treatment for Clogged Ears
The clogging of your Eustachian tubes is an uncomfortable yet harmless condition that usually resolves on its own. If you experience an earache along with the blockage, the doctor may recommend an over-the-counter pain medicine to manage the pain.
If the blockage is due to earwax buildup, your doctor may use a curet or a rubber bulb syringe to remove it.
Anti-inflammatory medicines in the form of nasal sprays are usually recommended if the ear clogging is due to allergies, many of which are now available without a prescription.
If, however, the problem is traced to an infection in the outer ear canal, antibiotic eardrops may be necessary. If the infection is behind the eardrum in the middle ear, you may need a prescription of oral antibiotics.
Oral decongestants or nasal decongestant sprays may be helpful for the treatment of clogged ears but should be used only briefly due to risks of side effects.
Home Treatment Options for Clogged Ears
You can take the help of these methods to unclog your ears and relieve the associated discomfort.
1. Preventative Self-Care Measures
- One of the most common mistakes that people make with regard to ear cleaning is the excessive use of penetrative tools such as Q-tips or ear picks.
It only pushes the wax deeper into the ear canal, worsening the condition. On top of that, inserting an unsterilized object into the ear can introduce new bacteria, dust, or dirt into the cavity and can damage the skin of your ear canal or your eardrum.
The ears are usually self-cleaning and need no help in getting the wax out. The natural facial motions associated with chewing and speaking are usually enough to get the job done.
If, however, you do need a bit of added help, do the minimally invasive methods listed below rather than the standard ear-cleaning tools.
- Given that your ear canal is extremely sensitive, it is generally advised to limit your ear cleaning efforts to the outer ear only.
- Always use a light touch when cleaning your ears to avoid damaging this extremely delicate part of the body.
- Digging your fingers into the ear or using sharp, invasive items such as bobby pins and keys to scoop out the earwax can compromise the integrity of your sensitive ear canal and can cause ear damage and hearing loss. It is best to avoid such risky practices.
- Excessive use of over-the-counter earwax removal drops to unclog your ears can actually backfire and make your problems worse.
These ear-cleaning solutions are usually quite harsh for the sensitive tissue lining your ear canal and the eardrum.
Thus, it is best to stick to the prescribed dosage as mentioned on the product label or as advised by your physician to avoid any serious damage to the ear canal or eardrum.
- People who work in highly polluted environments should consider wearing earplugs to avoid the dust, grime, and other atmospheric impurities from settling into their ears and clogging them.
- If you are in the middle of a common cold or sinus infection, drink plenty of fluids. This will help thin out the nasal secretions and facilitate their easy drainage.
At the same time, it is best to limit your intake of caffeine, salt, and alcohol and avoid smoking/vaping as these can adversely affect your blood circulation and make the nasal and ear congestion worse.
2. Do the Valsalva Maneuver
The Valsalva maneuver is a breathing technique that, if performed correctly, may help equalize the air pressure in your middle ear.
This procedure works by expelling air from the throat into the Eustachian tube to push out the impacted wax, thereby alleviating the stuffiness and pain associated with clogged ears.
A randomized clinical trial published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine demonstrated the efficacy of the Valsalva maneuver in addressing clogged ears. The eardrum movement observed in the ear microscopy while the patient performed the Valsalva maneuver was found helpful in alleviating the blockage. (1)
A 2011 study compared the efficacy of multiple ear pressure equalization techniques by testing them on 60 ears of 35 healthy adults and found that the Valsalva maneuver, Toynbee maneuver, and Ear Popper application were equally successful. (2)
Thus, when one of these alternative therapies fails to produce the desired effect, another can be used in its place to balance out the air pressure in the middle ear.
People who complain about experiencing a sense of fullness in the ears, earaches, or “water in the ear” can benefit from the Valsalva maneuver. When performing this exercise, you are likely to hear a popping sound in the affected ear, which will hopefully be followed by a clearing of the symptom.
- Draw in a deep breath and close your mouth. Close your nostrils as well by pinching them with your fingers.
- Try to expel the air out against the resistance of the closed mouth and blocked nose. You can tell that the technique has worked when you hear a slight popping sound, which means the Eustachian tube has opened.
- You may repeat this as often as necessary until the ear fullness resolves completely; if you do this a few times and get no relief, the problem may not be due to a change in the function of the Eustachian tube.
The benefits of practicing the Valsalva maneuver to get relief from clogged ears are substantiated by considerable research-based evidence. That said, one can only expect any kind of positive results from this exercise if it is done correctly and cautiously.
Given that your ear is one of the most sensitive organs in the entire body, you must avoid putting excessive strain while performing this maneuver.
3. Treat Your Clogged Ears with Heat Therapy
a. Steam inhalation
Steam inhalation helps open up any blockages within your ear, without any undue complications or side effects. Thus, this kind of mild heat therapy is perhaps the simplest and easiest way to get rid of clogged ears, especially those that result in the wake of a common cold infection.
The steam helps to dilute the respiratory mucus and makes it easier to drain out. This, in turn, helps open up the blocked Eustachian tube and relieves the associated discomforts.
Slowly breathe in the therapeutic fumes while holding your face over a bowl of hot steaming water infused with a few drops of tea tree oil or lavender essential oil. Cover your head with a towel to prevent the steam from escaping.
b. Warm shower
Another simple way to benefit from this kind of heat therapy is to spend 10 minutes in a warm shower every now and again to inhale the steam slowly until the clogged ear opens up.
c. Warm compress
Similarly, applying a warm compress on the clogged ear may help dissolve the impacted earwax so that it becomes more mobile and easier to drain out of the ear cavity. This kind of heat therapy is especially recommended when the blockage in your ear occurs in the wake of a common cold infection or sinus congestion.
You can use a washcloth drenched in warm water for this purpose, but only after wringing the excess water out. Alternatively, you can use a hot water bottle to make a warm compress.
Applying the water bottle directly to your skin can be too hot for your skin to handle, so you must wrap it in a thin towel to make it comfortably warm and then hold the pack over the affected ear for 5-10 minutes.
Both steam inhalation and warm compress may be helpful in loosening the condensed earwax for quick elimination, thereby relieving the pressure and pain associated with this condition. However, more rigorous studies are warranted to conclusively establish the efficiency of heat therapy as an adjunctive intervention for clogged ears.
4. Use Warm Olive Oil to Soften the Earwax
Olive oil may help water down the consolidated earwax and make it easier to expel. It is a mild fluid that is unlikely to trigger any adverse side effects or irritate the delicate lining of your inner ear.
A systematic review conducted by the University of Southampton in 2010 found olive oil to be effective in softening the consistency of impacted earwax, thus making it easier for the body’s natural cleaning processes to eliminate it from the outer ear canal. (3)(4)
There are considerable precedents for using warm olive oil for the removal of impacted earwax, but not enough scientific evidence to confirm just how effective it actually is. Thus, while you may give this relatively safe remedy a try after meeting all the doctor-recommended precautions, there is still room for further research to establish the efficacy of olive oil in getting rid of earwax.
5. Yawn to Release the Pressure Within Your Ear
The act of yawning stretches out the muscles that are responsible for opening the Eustachian tubes and thereby improve the pressure equalization in the middle ear.
The Eustachian tube normally remains closed, but when you yawn or swallow, the para-tubal muscles stretch it open briefly, allowing pressure equalization and ventilation inside the middle ear.
It is when the ear tube ceases to open intermittently in this manner that the sensation of ear fullness, popping or crackling sounds, and ear discomfort or pain usually set in. (5)
Yawning, like swallowing or chewing, is basically a self-management tool that can be used in conjunction with other standard therapies for the relief of clogged ears. Even though it is not backed by scientific data, the fact that there is virtually no ill effect associated with this method makes yawning a worthwhile option for supportive home care.
6. Swallow to Help Open Up Your Clogged Ears
If your clogged ears are due to a sudden change in air pressure, like what happens during an airplane landing, suck on some sugar-free lozenges or chew sugarless gum.
This stimulates saliva production and increases how often you swallow; as you swallow more, the Eustachian tubes open more frequently and may relieve the excess pressure in your ears.
If this simple remedy does not work, there are a number of devices available without a prescription that is intended to improve Eustachian tube function and middle ear function and, as a result, balance middle ear pressure. Examples of these devices include Otovent, Eustachi, and Ear Popper.
Swallowing by itself is a safe and supportive care intervention that may help relieve the stuffiness in your ear to some degree. However, one must remember that this relaxing effect has not been investigated scientifically and therefore needs further research-based validation.
7. Try the Ear Irrigation Method
Flushing your blocked ear with comfortably warm water may help dilute the impacted earwax and facilitate its speedy drainage. You are advised to use a large syringe that can hold 20 mL of warm sterile water to gently irrigate the ear canal.
Sterile or saline water is preferred over tap water to minimize the risk of infection. If you must use tap water, boil it first and then let it cool before use.
According to the clinical practice guidelines released by the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation in 2008, ear irrigation should only be performed by a trained expert in a clinical setting as there is not enough quality evidence to establish the safety of self-treatment. (6)
However, this claim was contested by the findings of a 2011 randomized controlled trial, which suggested that patients who performed earwax irrigation at home with a bulb syringe rarely experienced any adverse side effects and reported fewer medical visits both for initial cerumen removal and for subsequent episodes. (6)
Besides, one cannot dismiss the possibility of certain ear-related complications entirely, especially in cases when the patient self-irrigates without getting his ear examined by a clinician first.
You must only proceed with the procedure once the doctor has assessed the extent of earwax impaction and has ruled out the risk of a ruptured eardrum or an active middle ear infection.
Be careful not to insert the syringe too deeply as it can push the wax further inside the ear canal and can damage the delicate insides of your ear canal as well as your eardrum. Use a rounded nozzle to make sure that the syringe does not pass beyond the outer one-third of the ear canal or go deeper than approximately 8 mm within the canal.
When injecting the water, direct the stream toward the edge of the ear canal (rather than straight down the ear canal toward the eardrum) to enable the debris to flow out of the ear canal.
You can even use a cerumenolytic, or an earwax softening agent, prior to the process to loosen the consistency of the wax, making it easier to remove. To dry out your ears after irrigation, you may use a hairdryer on a low heat setting from a safe distance.
Note: Syringing, if not done properly or if done too frequently, can end up damaging the delicate skin of the ear canal and the eardrum itself. Stop the process immediately if you experience any pain or if bleeding occurs. If you use the syringe a few times and do not get relief, a professional examination of your ear is necessary.
Ear irrigation may serve as a convenient, cost-effective, and time-saving intervention for earwax removal that is unlikely to produce any deleterious side effects if done correctly. You can perform it at home, provided you follow the right technique and proper precautions as directed by the ENT. While there is still insufficient scientific evidence to show just how effective this technique actually is, the fact that ear irrigation has been a long-standing clinical practice for earwax removal signifies its promising potential.
Is Candling Safe?
Candling, a new-age tool marketed for earwax removal and unclogging ears, is considered to be unsafe. This method involves inserting lit, cone-shaped, and hollow candle into the ear to create a suction, which helps pull out the wax.
Using an ignited candle to clean your ears can be quite dangerous, as evidenced by the many burning accidents and injuries reported among those who have tried this method.
Candling can even end up perforating your eardrum. Candling is strictly and unanimously prohibited by ear specialists.
Risk Factors Associated with Clogged Ears
The following factors can increase your likelihood of developing clogged ears:
- Age: Ear infections are more prevalent among children than adults, and this puts children at a greater risk of developing clogged ears.
This is primarily because children have shorter and straighter ear tubes than adults, allowing easier and quicker entry for germs into the middle ear.
The structure of their Eustachian tube is such that any backflow of fluid tends to become trapped there. This is further compounded by the fact that children have a harder time fighting off infections due to their immature immune systems.
- Smoking: People who smoke have a greater likelihood of suffering from clogged ears. The middle ear and Eustachian tube are lined with tiny structures called cilia that sweep mucus from the middle ear, down the Eustachian tube, and into the back of the nose.
Smoking tends to damage the cilia and thereby reduces the movement of the mucus, leading to the accumulation of mucus within the ear tubes.
- Excessive Weight: Overweight or obese people can have fatty deposits around the Eustachian tubes, which can lead to their abnormal function.
- Sleep Disorders: People with sleep apnea have altered pressures when breathing during sleep; such alteration is thought to change Eustachian tube function.
- Pharmacological Drugs: Many medications, especially diuretics, anxiety medications, sleeping medications, and some antihistamines, have a negative effect on the cilia and also increase the stickiness of the mucus made in the middle ear, nose, and sinuses, which can also result in an increased risk of accumulation of middle ear pressure and middle ear fluid.
When to See a Doctor
You may have to schedule a visit to your doctor, preferably an ENT specialist (otolaryngologist) if the blockage in your ear persists despite appropriate self-care and primary home treatment.
Medical intervention to treat clogged ears is particularly helpful when there is a sinus or middle ear infection that is taking longer than usual to clear up.
Your doctor will prescribe the right medicines to speed up the recovery process from the inflammation and the infection, and as these problems come under control, the clogged sensation in the ears should gradually go away.
A visit to the doctor is also warranted if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Moderate to severe pain in the affected ear that gradually worsens
- Severe pain in your head or face
- Pus or bloody discharge from the affected ear
- Ringing in the affected ear
- Loss of hearing/changes in hearing
- Severe dizziness
- Running a fever higher than 101°F, especially in adults
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Mike Dilkes, MBBS (Otolaryngologist)
Repeated swallowing can help ease ear pressure and blockage symptoms as the action of swallowing causes the involved muscles to pull on the eustachian tube.
This tube runs from the middle part of the ear into the back of the nose, and its main function is to relieve pressure in the ear and drain fluid.
Pulling down on the tube during swallowing opens up the tube and allows pressure to be equalized, thus relieving blockage. This is why airlines used to give their passengers boiled sweets when landing. The sweets make you salivate and, consequently, swallow.
Blocked or clogged ears can be related to many medical conditions, in particular glue ear, wax impaction, foreign body in the ear canal, chronic middle ear infection, tumors of the middle ear, and postnasal space.
Clogged ears can last for a few minutes, such as when landing in an airplane, or many months. It can last even years when due to glue ear, wax impaction, or tumors.
Earwax is best dissolved using specifically designed ear drops. There are many formulations of these which can be bought over the counter. The better ones contain a chemical called sodium bicarbonate.
Ears naturally clear themselves through migration of the ear canal lining. This is how natural wax from the ear canals is cleared without resorting to cotton buds. Some causes of ear clogging can, therefore, clear themselves if given enough time.
A sinus infection is commonly related to clogged ears as swelling and discharge from the sinuses interact with the eustachian tubes at the back of the nose. This causes blockage of the eustachian tubes, so fluid and pressure build up in the middle part of the ear.
Wax buildup is the foremost cause of clogged ears. Try not to use cotton buds to clear earwax as this often forces the wax deep into the ear canal where it jams in place. Instead, it is best to let your ears clear naturally.
Going swimming can often help as earwax is quite easily washed out by swimming or showering, in tiny amounts that you do not even see.
About Dr. Mike Dilkes, MBBS, FRCS: Dr. Dilkes is a consultant ear, nose, and throat surgeon in London. He has 23 years of experience as a consultant and specializes in tonsil treatment, blocked noses, and snoring/sleep apnea. He uses laser technology coupled with computers to minimize suffering and treats most of his surgical patients as day cases.