What to Do When Your Ears Won't Pop

8 Safe Ways to Relieve Clogged Ears

Your body usually balances the air pressure on both sides of your eardrum. When the pressure changes between the middle ear and the outside, you will feel like your ears are plugged. If there's a lot of pressure change, it might even hurt.

How to Pop Your Ears
 Verywell / Emily Roberts 

In some cases, the air in your middle ear can have trouble adjusting to the pressure. This can happen when you are diving in water or flying in an airplane. It could even happen when you drive up or down a steep mountain.

Your middle ear usually adjusts to the pressure difference eventually. When it does, you will feel your ears pop. Sometimes you may need to help equalize the pressure by yawning or swallowing.

Certain medical conditions may impact your ability to pop your ears. When this happens, you may need to see a healthcare provider.

This article discusses why your ears sometimes feel plugged and how you can pop them. It also explains some of the conditions that may make it difficult to pop your ears.

What Causes the Feeling of Plugged Ears?

The eustachian tubes connect each middle ear to the upper part of your throat. They are also called auditory tubes. The popping sensation you feel happens when air moves from the upper part of your throat and nose through the eustachian tube into your middle ear.

Any medical condition that affects your eustachian tubes can prevent you from being able to pop your ears easily.

Effective Ways to Pop Your Ears

Try these simple tricks to help to equalize the pressure in your ears:

If these don't work, try a slightly more complicated move:

  • Valsalva maneuver: Inhale. Pinch your nose closed. Keeping lips closed, try to blow out forcefully, as if you are blowing up a balloon. Bear down as if you are having a bowel movement. This increases pressure in the sinuses and middle ears, helping them pop.
  • Toynbee maneuver: Keep your mouth closed, pinch your nose shut, and swallow. This increases pressure in the nose, throat, and inner ears, helping ears pop. 

If you are traveling with an infant or toddler, try giving them a bottle, pacifier, or drink.

If the pressure difference continues and you're unable to pop your ears, you may experience ear pain. It is also possible for this to lead to barotrauma, which is a ruptured eardrum.

Why Your Ears Won't Pop

If you feel pressure, pain, or your ears feel plugged, but they won't pop, you may have an underlying ear disorder. Disorders that affect the function of your auditory tube can cause this problem.

Fluid in the Ear

Fluid in the ear may prevent ears from popping. The thickened fluid blocks the auditory tube. This prevents fluid from draining into the back of the throat. Sometimes this is caused by an ear infection.

This condition has a few different names, including:

The adenoids are patches of tissue located high in your throat. When they become enlarged, they may block the auditory tubes, causing fluid to get trapped in the ear. This can also happen when the tissues in your nasal passages become swollen.

If the auditory tube is blocked by surrounding tissue, the tissue may have to be removed.

Frequent issues with fluid in the ear can be treated with a surgical procedure to insert artificial ear tubes. They let the ear drain and equalize pressure.

If you have ear tubes, your ears will not pop. This is because the tube will automatically equalize pressure.

Excessive Earwax

Too much earwax can also impair the function of your auditory tube. There are a few ways that your healthcare provider can remove the earwax. It can usually be done in their office.

Wax can be removed with special ear drops that dissolve the wax. It can also be flushed out with water. The healthcare provider can also use a special instrument called a cerumen spoon to remove the wax.

Do not use ear candles or cotton swabs to remove wax. This may push the wax down further.

A heavy earwax blockage should be removed by an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT).

Congestion

Too much mucus can make it hard to maintain pressure in the middle ear space. If you have allergies, try taking a decongestant before boarding an airplane or going on a road trip to a higher elevation.

Cold viruses also cause congestion, but if this symptom lasts longer than about three weeks, see a healthcare provider. Your congestion may be caused by allergies or another condition.

Patulous Eustachian Tube

Patulous eustachian tube is a disorder in which the tube is always open. It is an uncommon condition. Symptoms include:

  • The sensation of plugged ears
  • Tinnitus, a ringing sound in the ear
  • Autophony, when your voice seems abnormally loud to you
  • Hearing your own breathing

If you have patulous eustachian tube, keeping hydrated is crucial. Be sure to drink enough fluids throughout the day and consider using a humidifier at night.

Treatment for patulous eustachian tube includes non-invasive methods and surgery. Nasal sprays including saline, antihistamines, decongestants, or corticosteroids may be recommended. However, medicated nasal sprays can sometimes make it worse.

Ear tubes are effective about half the time. Other treatments include cauterizing the eustachian tube, injection of cartilage-fillers, and manipulating the muscles around the eustachian tube. 

Other Causes

Some other conditions that can cause problems with your auditory tube include:

  • Sinusitis, an infection of your nasal passages
  • Nasal polyps, which are growths in your nasal passages
  • Enlarged turbinates. Turbinates are structures in your nasal passages that help warm and humidify the air you breathe in.
  • Tonsillitis, an inflammation of the tonsils

Usually, an ENT practitioner will be able to help treat or manage any of the above problems. Your ENT may prescribe medications. In some cases, ear surgery may be required.

These conditions may make it uncomfortable or painful to travel. See a healthcare provider ahead of time so you can resolve these problems before you go.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

At-home treatments should start to work in a day or two. If you don't get relief or symptoms worsen, you may have a sinus or ear infection. These symptoms warrant a call to your healthcare provider or a trip to a walk-in clinic: 

  • Severe headache or facial pain
  • Pain and congestion that worsens after improving 
  • Fever that lasts longer than 72 hours

When to Seek Emergency Treatment

A ruptured eardrum—a hole or tear in your eardrum—is serious and can cause hearing loss. See a healthcare provider right away if you have these symptoms of a ruptured eardrum:

  • Blood or fluid draining from the ear
  • An intense earache followed by a pop and sudden relief of pain
  • Difficulty hearing

Summary

The sensation of having clogged ears happens when your body can't equalize the pressure in your ears because your eustachian (auditory) tubes are blocked. You can try to pop your ears by yawning, swallowing, or chewing. Taking decongestants may also help.

There are a number of conditions that can cause the sensation of plugged ears, including fluid in the ear, excess earwax, and congestion. Some problems like sinusitis and tonsillitis may require treatment by a healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Ear problems that affect the ability to equalize pressure can be bothersome or even painful. They may get in the way of your enjoyment of activities like traveling by plane and scuba diving. Sometimes you won't know you have a problem until you are already participating in the activity.

If your ears do not pop and you feel like they are clogged or you are experiencing significant ear pain, see a healthcare provider. You should also see a healthcare provider at once if you have symptoms of a ruptured eardrum.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I prevent airplane ear?

    To avoid the feeling of clogged ears, especially during takeoff or landing, you can try a few things:

    • Take a decongestant 30 minutes to an hour before traveling
    • Use ear plugs
    • Chew gum or repeatedly yawn as the plane takes off and lands
  • Could COVID-19 cause ears to feel clogged?

    COVID-19 has been associated with ear infections, which can cause you to feel like your ears are clogged. However, other illnesses such as a sinus infection or another type of ear infection are more likely to cause ear pressure. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms.

  • Is it normal for children to feel like their ears are blocked?

    Yes, because children have narrow Eustachian tubes (tubes that connect their throat to the middle ear) that are easily blocked by congestion or changes in air pressure. This is also why children are more susceptible to ear infections than adults.

  • What does a ruptured my eardrum feel like?

    A ruptured eardrum starts with an intense earache. You will hear a pop, followed by relief. Once the eardrum ruptures, you won't feel pain. It only hurts before it perforates.

    Other signs of a ruptured ear drum include difficulty hearing in that ear and blood or fluid draining from the ear.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Srivastav S, Jamil RT, Zeltser R. Valsalva Maneuver. [Updated 2022 May 2]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. 

  2. Finkelstein Y, Talmi YP, Zohar Y, Laurian N. Study of Toynbee phenomenon by combined intranasopharyngeal and tympanometric measurements. Ann Otol Rhinol Laryngol. 1988;97(2 Pt 1):199-206. doi:10.1177/000348948809700220

  3. Nemours KidsHealth. Ear tube surgery.

  4. Cedars-Sinai. Impacted earwax.

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Patulous eustachian tube.

  6. Lehman M, Sudhoff HH, Ebmeyer J. Treatment of the patulous eustachian tube with soft-tissue bulking agent injectionsOtol Neurotol. 2014;36:448–52. doi:10.1097/MAO.0000000000000646

  7. Rout MR, Mohanty D, Vijaylaxmi Y, Bobba K, Metta C. Adenoid hypertrophy in adults: a case seriesIndian J Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2013;65(3):269–274. doi:10.1007/s12070-012-0549-y

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sinus infection (sinusitis).

  9. Bhattacharya S, Singh A, Marzo RR. “Airplane ear”—A neglected yet preventable problem. AIMSPH. 2019;6(3):320-325. doi:10.3934%2Fpublichealth.2019.3.320

  10. Jeong M, Ocwieja KE, Han D, et al. Direct SARS-CoV-2 infection of the human inner ear may underlie COVID-19-associated audiovestibular dysfunction. Commun Med. 2021;1(1):44. doi:10.1038/s43856-021-00044-w