If you have blocked ears but no other symptoms, read on. This article will explain some of the causes of blocked ears and your treatment options.
As always, if you’re experiencing pain or discomfort and aren’t sure why, it’s best to seek advice from your doctor. They’ll be able to give you a thorough check-up and hopefully get to the bottom of your symptoms.
What are the Symptoms of Clogged Ears?
If you have a clogged ear you’ll generally experience a fullness or ‘bunged up’ feeling in your ears. You might also have some additional symptoms depending on the cause of your clogged ears, as we’ll discuss below.
What Can Cause Clogged Ears?
Fluid in the Ear
You can get clogged ears due to fluid in your Eustachian tube (also known as the auditory tube). This might occur as a result of enlarged tonsils, adenoids, turbinates, or severe congestion from a cold or allergies. You could experience a bit of hearing loss and in severe cases, you might feel ear pain or pressure and vertigo (a spinning sensation).
As the Eustachian tube carries unwanted debris like mucus from the ears to the back of the throat (to be swallowed) it can become plugged when fluid is trapped in the middle ear.
You might be more susceptible to clogged ears from fluid than other people are if your Eustachian tubes are particularly narrow or small in diameter.
The fluid might go away on its own, but if it doesn’t, you should see a doctor. They might decide to monitor your ears at three-month to six-month intervals to see if it eventually goes. Otherwise, you might be prescribed medications such as an antibiotic, antifungal, or antihistamine.
In the meantime, they might recommend some Over-the-Counter (OTC) painkillers and you can try some home remedies for ear congestion.
If your plugged ears are chronic, ear tubes (ventilation tubes) might be inserted via a myringotomy procedure done under anesthesia. This helps to drain any fluid out of the auditory tube.
Changes in Atmospheric Pressure
Changes in altitude can also cause clogged ears (this is known as barotrauma). This is because changes in ambient pressure can affect your Eustachian tube which helps to equalize the pressure between your middle ear and outer ear. At higher altitudes, the Eustachian tube struggles to equalize pressure properly, so you feel the change in air pressure in your ears.
You might have experienced popping in your ears during lift-off on a flight, if you have gone scuba diving, or if you have done a similar rapid-pressure-changing activity recently. Usually, the sensation clears shortly after the triggering activity, but sometimes your ears can’t re-adjust to atmospheric pressure - this can cause clogged ears.
The worst-case scenario is that changes in atmospheric pressure lead to a ruptured eardrum.
You’ll certainly know if your clogged ears are caused by altitude if you also begin to develop the symptoms of high altitude sickness, such as headache, nausea, and shortness of breath.
To prevent ear clogging due to atmospheric pressure changes, you need to let air in and open up your Eustachian tube by swallowing, chewing, or yawning frequently. You can also take a decongestant before a flight if you tend to struggle with this.
If you have clogged ears due to altitude and start to experience pain, fluid drainage, or significant hearing loss, you need to see a doctor as soon as possible.
Ear Wax Build-up
Ear wax is necessary to protect your ears. It prevents debris and bacteria from entering your ear and cleanses the ear canal as part of your ear’s natural cleaning system.
It is usually soft but can harden and block your ear. You can also produce too much wax, and some people tend to have a propensity for this more than others. Hearing aid users often experience issues with wax build-up.
Don't try to remove excessive ear wax yourself. If wax is expelled from your ear you can gently remove this, but don’t push anything into your ear as this can seriously damage fragile structures or rupture your eardrum. You also stand the chance of pushing wax further into your ear. Go to see your doctor as they can remove it with special equipment (a curette), irrigate your ear, or use ear drops to dissolve the wax.
If the wax is not eventually removed, it can result in hearing loss further down the line.
Objects Obstructing Your Eardrum
Although this is more common with young children and is unlikely to apply to you, it is important to acknowledge that objects can obstruct your eardrum, resulting in the sensation of a clogged ear.
If you can see or feel something in your ear don’t try to remove it yourself. Go to your doctor and they will be able to safely remove the object. If there is fluid draining from your ear or a foul odor, see your doctor immediately.
Does Clogged Ear Go Away on Its Own?
As mentioned, a clogged ear can go away on its own, but this will depend on its cause. If your sensations are down to a cold or flu, it is worth trying some home remedies and seeing if your symptoms disappear as you start to feel better. If you have something in your ear, this will need to be removed. Take note of how long you have had symptoms for and if they continue for more than ten days, you should see a doctor.
Of course, if you experience severe pain, discharge, or hearing loss you should see a doctor as soon as possible.
What Treatment Options Are Available?
There are a few effective home remedies and OTC medications (painkillers such as ibuprofen (Motrin), paracetamol, or naproxen sodium (Aleve) that you can try in the short-term before you see a doctor.
When Should I See a Doctor?
If your clogged ears don’t clear on their own, appropriate treatment from a doctor might be required to prevent any long-term complications such as hearing loss.
If you hear a popping sound, have severe pain, see fluid draining from the ear, have sudden changes in your hearing or balance, or experience hearing loss, you should make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
To learn more about the causes of clogged ears, see our other blog articles.
The information in this guide has been written using the following reliable sources: