Plugged Ears and How to Relieve Them

4 Common Causes of Plugged Ears

Show Article Table of Contents

Plugged ears can be caused by a few different things, including fluid in the ear, changes in atmospheric pressure, excessive ear wax, or objects obstructing your eardrum, and each cause has a different treatment. When you're not sure what's causing your discomfort, it's worth seeking a professional opinion. Doing so can help you quickly address the issue and avoid potential complications.

why are my ears clogged
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell

Fluid in the Ear

Plugged ears can be a result of trapped fluid in the auditory tube. The auditory tube normally carries unwanted debris—including fluid and mucus from the ears—to the back of the throat where it is swallowed, but sometimes it can become plugged and fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear.

  • Causes: Conditions that can cause the auditory tube to become blocked can include enlarged structures such as tonsils, adenoids, and turbinates, or severe congestion. It's common to have plugged ears for a while after you've had a severe cold and it can also be caused by allergies. Fluid in the ear is more likely to be the cause of plugged ears in children because their auditory tube is smaller in diameter and naturally more horizontal than an adult's auditory tube.
  • Symptoms: Even though your ears may feel plugged, it is common to have little or no symptoms of fluid in the ear. It can, however, result in hearing loss. If left undiagnosed in small children, this can lead to speech delays. In severe cases, there can be ear pain or pressure, dizziness or balance loss (vertigo), and gross motor delays (in young children). If you do not have bothersome symptoms, or if the patient is a child who is not at risk for developmental delays, your doctor may choose to monitor the fluid at three-month to six-month intervals to see if it goes away on its own.
  • Treatment: Decongestants like pseudoephedrine or antihistamines can help prevent fluid in the ear. However, if you have chronic problems, decongestants are not the best long-term solution.

The best treatment for chronically plugged ears is inserting ear tubes (ventilation tubes) via a myringotomy procedure.

Myringotomy is a common procedure done under anesthesia in which a tiny hole is made in the eardrum and synthetic tubes are placed in the auditory tube to hold it open. This tube allows the fluid to drain out of it. The hole in the eardrum heals on its own in a few days and the synthetic tubes fall out without intervention about a year later.

Altitude Changes

Plugged ears can be caused by rapid changes in ambient pressure and its effects on the auditory tube, known as barotrauma. Along with the eardrum, the auditory tube helps to equalize the pressure between the middle ear and the outer ear. This is why your ears can feel plugged when you are driving up a steep mountain or taking off in an airplane. This can also occur while scuba diving, and, if precautions are not taken, can lead to severe ear injuries, such as a ruptured eardrum.

The best way to prevent barotrauma and to help plugged ears from altitude changes is to swallow, chew, or yawn frequently. This opens up your normally collapsed auditory tube, allowing outside air to enter the ear. You may also try an over-the-counter decongestant if you typically have trouble clearing your ears with altitude changes; take it an hour before your flight starts descending. If you have allergies, use your allergy medication at the start of the flight.

If you get plugged ears despite chewing and yawning, pinch your nostrils shut, take a breath, and gently direct the air into the back of your nose as if you are blowing your nose. You will hear a pop if this works. You can repeat this as needed, but be sure to be gentle.

If you experience pain, fluid drainage, or significant hearing loss, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Takeaway:

If you experience pain, fluid drainage, or significant hearing loss, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Excessive Ear Wax

Occasionally, plugged ears can be caused by too much ear wax. This is not a common problem since the ears normally have their own built-in cleaning system, but for unknown reasons, a certain percentage of the population may overproduce ear wax.

Don't try to remove excessive ear wax yourself; let your doctor remove it with special equipment to avoid rupturing your eardrum or pushing the wax even further into your ear. The FDA has warned against using ear candles, as well.

Your doctor may use one of these methods to remove excessive ear wax:

  • Irrigate the ear with water
  • Scoop it out with a special tool called a curette or cerumen spoon
  • Use ear drops designed to dissolve ear wax.

Foreign Object

It is not uncommon for young children to place things in their ear. This may happen out of curiosity or a dare from a friend, similar to foreign nasal obstructions. Depending on their age, the only clue you may have is the constant rubbing of their ear and grimacing. With foreign objects, your child will not have a fever or any cold symptoms, unless the obstruction is in long enough to cause an infection.

You can use a flashlight to take a look, but you shouldn't remove a foreign object unless you're absolutely positive you can do so without injuring the ear. Never stick anything sharp inside of the ear in an attempt to remove a foreign object.

The best thing to do is to take a trip to the pediatrician's office where specialized equipment can help the doctor see and remove the object safely.

If you notice any fluid draining from the ear or a foul odor, your child needs to see a physician immediately.

Takeaway:

If you notice any fluid draining from the ear or a foul odor, your child needs to see a physician immediately.

A Word From Verywell

Having your ears feel plugged all the time can be very disconcerting. Ensuring that you receive the appropriate treatment for any of the causes listed above will help prevent any long-term complications, such as developmental delay or hearing loss. If you ever hear a popping sound followed by pain, see fluid draining from the ear, or have sudden changes in your hearing or balance, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Diacova S, McDonald TJ, Ababii I. Clinical, functional, and surgical findings in chronic bilateral otitis media with effusion in childhood. Ear Nose Throat J. 2016 Aug;95(8):E31-7.
  • Ears and Altitude. American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery. http://www.entnet.org/content/ears-and-altitude.

  • Earwax and Care.  American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery. http://www.entnet.org/content/earwax-and-care.