Clogged Ears and How to Relieve Them

Four Common Causes of Plugged Ears

Plugged ears can be caused by a few different things. The reasons include fluid in the ear, changes in atmospheric pressure, excessive ear wax, or even small objects blocking the eardrum. Each cause has a different treatment, and it's important to get a professional opinion.

This article details some of the possible reasons your ears may feel plugged. It also explains some common treatment options.

why are my ears clogged

Verywell / Emily Roberts

Fluid in the Ear

Plugged ears can be a result of swelling in the auditory tube, also known as the eustachian tube. This tube in your ear normally equalizes pressure in the middle ear.

Sometimes, though, the tube can become plugged and the fluid gets trapped in the middle ear.

Causes

Some health conditions can cause blockage of the eustachian tube. A common cause is congestion, such as from a severe cold or allergies. Swollen structures such as tonsils, adenoids, and turbinates in the nose can also block the tubes.

Fluid in the ear is more common in children because their eustachian tubes are narrower and naturally more horizontal than an adult's eustachian tube.

Symptoms

Fluid in the ear often causes few symptoms or no symptoms at all. Sometimes the fluid in the ear can cause your ears to feel clogged, and in severe cases, it can cause ear pain.

Plugged ears can result in hearing loss. If young children are not diagnosed or treated, it can lead to speech delays.

Treatment

If you or your child don't have any troubling symptoms or risks for complications, your healthcare provider may monitor the fluid every three to six months to see if it goes away on its own.

Sometimes, a myringotomy and tympanostomy tube placement may be needed. This is a common procedure that's done with anesthesia.

During the procedure, a tiny hole is created in the eardrum, with small tubes inserted into the tympanic membrane to hold it open. This tube allows the fluid to drain out. The hole in the eardrum heals on its own in a few days, and the tubing will fall out by itself about a year later.

Recap

Fluid in the ears may cause ear pressure and pain, and it can lead to more serious issues if it isn't treated and persists. That's especially true in children, who risk hearing loss and speech delays in severe cases. Contact your healthcare provider if you have concerns about plugged ears.

Altitude Changes

Plugged ears can be caused by rapid pressure changes in the environment. This may affect the eustachian tube and cause what's known as barotrauma.

Along with the eardrum, the eustachian tube helps to equalize 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, taking off in an airplane, or while scuba diving. If precautions are not taken, extreme pressure changes can lead to an ear injury, such as a ruptured eardrum.

The best way to prevent this and to help protect the ears from altitude changes is to swallow, chew, or yawn often. This opens up your eustachian tube to allow outside air to enter the ear.

You may also benefit from using an over-the-counter decongestant if you typically have trouble clearing your ears when you are exposed to altitude changes. This helps unblock the auditory tubes.

  • If you have allergies, use your allergy medication at the start of the flight.
  • Take the decongestant an hour before your flight starts its landing descent.

If you experience ear pain, fluid drainage from the ear, or significant hearing loss, you should see a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Excessive Ear Wax

Sometimes, plugged ears can be caused by too much ear wax. This is not common since the ears normally have their own built-in cleaning system. Some people may produce too much ear wax or don't efficiently clear it.—this problem usually occurs without a known cause.

Don't try to remove excess ear wax by yourself. Your healthcare professional can remove it with special tools to avoid rupturing your eardrum or pushing the wax even further into your ear.

Your clinician may use one of a few methods to remove the ear wax.

They include:

  • Flushing the ear with water
  • Scooping ear wax out with a tool called a curette or cerumen spoon
  • Using ear drops that dissolve ear wax

Foreign Object

It is not uncommon for young children to put things in their ears. This may happen out of curiosity or a dare from a friend, as is often the case with foreign object nasal obstructions.

If the child isn't old enough to tell you what they're feeling, some clues include constant ear rubbing and grimacing. This doesn't cause fever or cold symptoms unless the object is in the ear long enough to cause an infection.

You can use a flashlight to take a look, but you shouldn't try to remove the item yourself. Never stick anything sharp inside of the ear in an attempt to remove any object.

The best thing to do is to take a trip to the pediatrician's office. They have special tools they can use to see the object better and remove it safely.

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

Summary

Common causes of a plugged feeling in the ears include having fluid in the ear, a build-up of too much ear wax, altitude changes when flying or driving, and a foreign object in the ear. Most of the time, these problems are easily diagnosed and treated.

But persistent problems in young children can lead to infections, hearing loss, and even speech delays. And you should never put anything in the ear to try to remove ear wax or a foreign object. See a healthcare provider for safe treatment instead.

A Word From Verywell

Having your ears feel plugged all the time can be upsetting. To prevent long-term complications, it's important that treatment is appropriate for the condition. Be sure to see your healthcare provider if you have pain and hear a popping sound, see fluid draining from the ear, or have changes in your hearing or balance.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you unclog your ears?

    Sometimes you can clear your ears by swallowing, chewing, or yawning. A decongestant or antihistamine may help if you have a cold or allergies. If you have excessive ear wax or an object in your ear, your doctor can use special tools to clear it out safely.

  • How long does a blocked ear last?

    It depends on the cause. If your ear is blocked from pressure on an airplane, your ears may return to normal shortly after landing. If your ear is blocked because of fluid, it can sometimes take up to three months for your ears to clear.

  • When should you see a doctor for a clogged ear?

    Check with your doctor if your ear is still blocked after a week. Also make an appointment if you have other symptoms like pain, fever, or fluid draining from the ear.

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10 Sources
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