Clogged Ears and How to Relieve Them

Four Common Causes of Plugged Ears

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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 that block your eardrum. Each cause has a different treatment, for which some may be worth seeking a professional opinion.

This article details some of the possible reasons your ears may feel plugged. It also offers some treatment ideas.

why are my ears clogged

Verywell / Emily Roberts

Fluid in the Ear

Plugged ears can be a result of trapped fluid in the auditory tube, also known as the eustachian tube. This tube in your ear normally carries away unwanted matter, such as fluid and mucus from the ears.

This material usually drains to the back of the throat, where it is swallowed. Sometimes, though, the tube can become plugged and the fluid gets trapped in the middle ear.

Causes

Some health conditions can cause the blockage. These may include swollen structures such as tonsils, adenoids, and turbinates found in the nose. Severe congestion also may cause plugged ears. It's common to have plugged ears because of a severe cold or allergies.

Fluid in the ear is more likely to be the cause of plugged ears in children. This is because their auditory tubes are narrower and naturally more horizontal than an adult's auditory tube.

Symptoms

Even though your ears may feel plugged, it is common to have few or no symptoms of fluid in the ear. Still, this fluid can 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 a loss of balance (vertigo). If the problem is persistent, young children may have delays in developing gross motor skills.

Treatment

If you or your child don't have any troubling symptoms or risks for complications, your healthcare provider may choose to 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 done under anesthesia.

A tiny hole is created in the eardrum, with small tubes inserted into the auditory tube 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 safely falls out by itself about a year later.

Recap

Fluid in the ears may cause ear pain, dizziness, and loss of balance, and lead to more serious issues if left untreated. That's especially true in children, who risk hearing loss and developmental 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 auditory tube and cause what's known as barotrauma. Along with the eardrum, the auditory 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 or taking off in an airplane. This also may occur while scuba diving. If precautions are not taken, the pressure changes can lead to severe ear injuries, 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 auditory tube to allow outside air to enter the ear.

You may also want to try an over-the-counter decongestant if you typically have trouble clearing your ears with altitude changes. This helps unblock the auditory tubes. Take it an hour before your flight starts its descent before landing. If you have allergies, use your allergy medication at the start of the flight.

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 a common problem since the ears normally have their own built-in cleaning system. Yet, for unknown reasons, some people may produce too much ear wax.

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

Your provider 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, the only clue you may have is constant ear rubbing and grimacing. Your child will not have a fever or any cold symptoms, unless the foreign 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 a foreign object yourself. 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. A healthcare provider has special tools they can use to see the object better and remove it safely.

If you notice any fluid draining from the ear or a foul odor, your child needs to see a healthcare provider 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 developmental 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. It's important that treatment is appropriate for the condition, in order to try and prevent any long-term complications. Be sure to see your healthcare provider 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.

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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