Plugged or Clogged Ears: Causes, Treatments & Remedies
Why do my ears feel clogged or what causes it? If you have this problem, what do you do? Can water, allergies, sinus infection, cold, flights, or other inner ear infections cause this problem? Are there ear drops, home remedies, and other treatments that can help get rid of or deal with this menace?
Clogged or plugged ears refer to “a feeling of fullness or pressure in your ears” [Mayoclinic.org] due to obstruction of Eustachian tubes (that results in positive or negative pressure in the middle ear) that connects it the nose.
This problem might be accompanied by some earache, pain, dizziness, popping or crackling sound, muffled sense of hearing, etc.
The eustachian tubes help balance the inner ear and outside air pressure and it should click each time you blow your nose, yawn, or swallow when it is functioning properly. Clicking happens as it opens momentarily to allow air to flow from the inner ear to the nose (outside environment).
Although the problem is common in children, it also affects people of all ages. You might experience clogged ears at various times such as when you wake up while sleeping on your ear. Also, while you are talking when exposed to extreme weather conditions or throughout the day.
Plugged clogged ears symptoms
Depending on the cause, this problem may be accompanied by a number of symptoms such as a sore throat, ringing ear feeling. Also muffled hearing, some pressure behind your ears, dizziness, numbness, and some pain (they might hurt or not hurt i.e. feeling clogged but doesn’t hurt or huts).
Sometimes you may feel like it needs to pop or crackle or it feels like it has water or fluid even after cleaning and drying it especially if it is due to ear infections.
Why does my ear feel clogged – causes?
With a rough idea of what clogged or plugged ears are, it is time to look at some of the common causes of this problem. While discussing each of these cases, we will mention treatments, cures, and remedies that might be helpful.
1. Sinus infection
Sinus infection is one of the common causes of plugged ears i.e. “pain, dizziness, and that muffled-ear sensation, like you’re in a descending plane, can be caused by sinus woes” [WebMD.com]. This is often accompanied by some sinus pressure on your cheeks and behind ears especially if your eustachian tube tissue lining gets infected too.
When caused by sinus infection, you will have other symptoms. Such a headache that worsens, cough, bad breath, fatigue, deteriorating sense to smell, fever, stuffy or runny nose that stays for more than a week, and a “thick yellow or green mucus draining from your nose or down the back of your throat (postnasal drip)” [WebMD.com].
Treating sinus infection
Sinus infection can be due to bacteria, viruses, and allergies. According to Greg Davis, ENT specialist from the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, he says that “mostly, these acute infections go away on their own or after a simple course of antibiotics” [WebMD.com].
Other treatments include sinus irrigation or the use of saline nasal spray (to clean your nose twice a day), steroids, decongestants. Also, OTC pain relievers such as Advil, Motrin, Tylenol, and Aleve to reduce an earache. Furthermore, keep your head up, blow your nose gently and avoid places with extremely high or cold temperatures.
The second common cause is cold. This is a “viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways” [Nhs.uk] that often resolves on its own within two weeks. It resembles flu but comes gradually, doesn’t commonly have aching muscles, high fever, and it is not often accompanied by a headache.
Sometimes you might suffer from ear clogging from the cold that won’t go away if you persistently suffer from colds. Besides your ears feeling clogged (i.e. the pressure in your ears and at times face), you will have other symptoms. Such as a sore throat, runny and stuffy nose (mucus buildup), fatigue, a cough, swollen sinuses, sneezing, and hoarseness of your voice as well as a general unwellness feeling.
Other less often symptoms might include fever (common in children), earache, headache, mild eye irritation, and loss of smell and taste abilities.
Treatment when caused by cold
Try sinus irrigation i.e. use a neti pot (flushes sinus and thins your mucus), over the counter cold medications (including painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol), and decongestants. Also, drink lots of fluids, get sufficient rest, and have high fiber, low-fat healthy diet.
There are also a number of home remedies such as gargling salt water, sucking menthol, nasal saline drops, vapor rubs, inhaling steam, and taking a hot steamy shower among others that do help.
“The ear canal is lined with hair follicles and glands that produce a waxy oil called cerumen” [Nlm.nih.gov] which helps in protecting your delicate canal lining as well as trapping bacteria, dust, and germs that would otherwise get into your ears.
However, the buildup of earwax can cause this problem. This is one of the common causes of hearing loss i.e. you cannot hear because your canals are plugged.
Common symptoms include an earache, loss of hearing (partial or complete), dizziness, ear ringing, itchiness, ear drainage, etc.
Getting rid of clogged earwax
There are many ways of getting rid of clogged ear wax online. Ensure you do not try any method suggested but rather go for the safe ways only. The easy, safe, and common ways include the following:
i. Use of glycerin, baby or mineral oil
With a dropper add a few drops of baby oil, glycerin, or mineral oil twice a day for about 5 days to help soften the wax. Once your earwax becomes soft, it will come out on its own.
ii. Use hydrogen peroxide
If you do not see any results with the method (i) above, “try putting a little hydrogen peroxide in your ear to remove the wax” [Healthline.com]. Once you have added a few drops, wait for a short while until the fixing stops. Then, drain it by tilting your head or squirting water at your body temperature with bulb aspirator to remove the wax. Note that the hydrogen peroxide should be diluted to 3%.
iii. Use of warm water
Another good way is the use of warm water. Using a rubber ball syringe filled with warm water, “tilt your head, and pull your earlobe up a bit so that you can direct the water into your canal” [Healthline.com]. Repeat it a few times and dry your ears. To avoid dizziness, ensure the water is at your own body temperature.
iv. OTC commercial eardrops
Try using over the counter eardrops such as Murine or Debrox which help soften the wax. Once you have added a few drops, give them 5 minutes to soften the wax and let it drain out.
If they do not come out, see an otolaryngologist for manual removal as the American Academy of Otolaryngology recommends.
NOTE: Avoid handling, do not use Q-tips or objects to remove earwax as these will only push the wax deeper. Furthermore, ensure you do not have any perforation on your eardrums or middle ear infections while trying the above remedies. Finally, see your doctor in case of drainage, pain, loss of hearing, or fever.
4. Swimmer’s ear or external otitis
Another possible cause is otitis externa. This is an infection that affects your auditory canal caused by bacteria common in contaminated water or soil. i.e. “It’s often brought on by water that remains in your ear after swimming, creating a moist environment that aids bacterial growth.” [Mayoclinic.org].
Furthermore, the use of cotton swabs, putting fingers to ears or objects can cause this problem especially if you damage the delicate skin lining.
Symptoms of external otitis include itchiness, redness, discomfort, odorless fluid drainage from the auditory canal. It can also result in a muffled hearing, pus discharge, fever, swollen neck lymph nodes, or pain radiating to your neck and side of head and face.
Treatment is by “over-the-counter analgesics and topical eardrops” [Medscape.com] where acetic acid drops (helps in killing bacteria), antibacterial drops (treat the causative bacteria), and antifungal preparations (deal with any fungal infection that might be present) and corticosteroids eardrops (helps in reducing any swelling) are often used.
Severe cases might require intravenous and oral antibiotic therapy as well as the use of narcotic analgesics.
5. After flying
The other common cause is pressure imbalance between the inner ear and the outside environment experienced when an airplane is gaining altitude or descending i.e. you will often have this problem after having a flight. A similar problem is experienced during deepsea diving or when using elevators.
This happens since the eardrums are sucked inwards or outwards due to the pressure imbalance muffling hearing and stretching them. This can at times be painful. Yawning, chewing gum or swallowing can help deal with this problem.
6. Acoustic neuroma
Acoustic neuroma, a non-cancerous benign (or at times slow-growing tumor) on the acoustic nerve that leads from a person’s inner ear to his or her brain and it “can cause hearing loss, ringing in your ear and unsteadiness” [mayoclinic.org] as well them being plugged. Treatment is by radiation and surgical removal.
Letting the water to get into your ears can cause clogging. This is uncomfortable, decreases hearing, and makes you feel like something is trapped. Water in the ear can be removed by draining or blow-drying your ears, use of eardrops, chewing gum, adding more water, etc.
Airborne allergens such as dust, pet dander, pollen, dust, etc. can trigger histamine production leading to various allergy symptoms such as sneezing, itchy throat, swollen face, coughing, lightheadedness (a feeling that you might faint or pass out), numbness (if the allergy is serious) dizziness, and sinus congestion.
These symptoms can lead to blockage of the eustachian tube and consequently they get clogged i.e. when you “begin experiencing symptoms in your ears, including that annoying clogged feeling that can make it difficult to hear, it’s often because your eustachian tube is blocked with mucus” [Healthline.com]. Such a blockage can be due to the above allergic reaction symptoms.
Antihistamines, corticosteroids, decongestants, and leukotriene inhibitors will be helpful. Furthermore, avoid triggers, consider allergy shots as well as the various home remedies to ease some of the allergy symptoms such as nasal washes.
9. Other causes
Other common causes of clogged ear tubes include eustachian tubes that do not open well to balance pressure well, pregnancy (some women often suffer from this problem while pregnant making pregnancy a possible cause). Also, loud music especially after a concert, fluid collection, or any middle ear infections, foreign bodies, a hole in your eardrum, cochlear hydrops, and TMJ.
Get rid or clear a clogged ears
The methodology you are going to apply to will depend on what caused it. We have already seen the various causes such as water, earwax, flight in the plane, cold, sinus congestion, infections, allergies, etc. as well as how to deal with each of these causatives.
We are now going to mention general ways to unclog it before looking at home remedies and best eardrops to use. Some of the additional ways include the following:
- If caused by infections, various prescription and over the counter medication may be recommended to help unblock them. Popular treatments include antifungal, antibacterial, and corticosteroid eardrops (topical nasal steroids). See your doctor immediately for diagnosis and prescription.
- Try using decongestants for a few days (don’t use them for prolonged periods to ease the symptoms i.e. not more than 3-4 days to reduce risks of rhinitis medicamentosa).
- Go for tube ventilation to drain any fluid and reduce the pressure in case of severe cases.
- Alcohol and apple cider vinegar can help in killing bacteria that could be behind this problem. Mix equal amounts of alcohol and apple cider vinegar and put a few drops into your ear. After a few minutes, drain it by tilting your head.
Surgical treatment or myringotomy
Sometimes, treatment might involve a surgical procedure where an incision is made in the eardrum to help drain fluid and thus bringing pressure balance on the outside and inside.
Besides an incision, there are cases where a small tube is placed on the eardrum. This one of the ways to treat this problem if you are suffering from eustachian tube dysfunction.
Fixing by remedies
There are a number of home remedies you can use to deal with the various causes including those from allergies, sinus infection, due to cold, water, etc.
Before I see a doctor, whenever my ears are clogged, I always try the various remedies. Of course, just like most remedies, results might work for some individual effectively while in others, results might be somewhat less effective or slow.
We have already mentioned a number of home remedies especially while looking at how to unclog earwax. Some additional popular home remedies include:
1. Did you know chewing gums can help?
The easiest way to relieve this condition is chewing sugar-free chewing gum. It can help in opening clogged eustachian tubes especially if caused by rapid descent or ascent such as using an elevator or taking an airplane flight.
2. Breathing exercises or Valsalva maneuver
To do this, “take a deep breath and try to blow out of your nose gently while pinching your nostrils closed and keeping your mouth shut” [Mayoclinic.org]. A popping noise sound will mean you have successfully unclogged them. Avoid blowing too hard as you try to remove the clogging as it can damage your eardrums.
3. Warm compress
Place a heating pad or a warm washcloth on the affected ear for 5 to 10 minutes to help relieve pain, reduce congestion, and unclog them.
Yawning is a simple natural remedy that helps to decrease the air pressure in your ears as well as make your muscles active. These two actions will help your eustachian tubes to open much easier. If you hear a popping or crackling sound as you yawn, you would have succeeded in opening the clog.
5. Gargling hot saline water
Prepare a saline solution by adding a teaspoon of salt to a glass of hot water and gargle it for about 15-30 seconds to help ease congestion. Repeat severally until you get some relief.
6. Olive oil or garlic oil.
Another home remedy is to add a few drops of warm olive oil (at your body temperature) using a dropper into your auditory canal and let it stay for about 5 to 10 minutes before tilting your head to drain the oil out. Garlic oil can similarly also be used.
7. Inhale tea tree oil
According to Healthyandnaturalworld.com, inhaling tea tree, lavender, or eucalyptus oil can help in unclogging blocked ears. Tea tree oil has antiseptic and antimicrobial properties that will help cure minor infections. To use this remedy, put boiling water in a bowl, add a few drops of tea tree oil, and inhale its steam.
8. Other remedies
Other remedies you should also try include using a humidifier in your room if it is extremely dry and adopting a propped up or semi-upright position by adding a few more pillows while sleeping. Sleeping on your side also helps, i.e. according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.
If your cause is a cold, allergies, clogged wax, among other causes, there are a number of eardrops you can give a try. You will get them in your local pharmaceutical stores, at Walgreens, Walmart, CVS, and other leading pharmaceutical companies.
There are both prescription and OTC. If you are creative, you can make some at home i.e. homemade eardrops for unclogging ears.
For earwax removal, some of the best medicines to try include Debrox, peroxide, Ceruminex, mineral oil, and Murine. If you have pain, try benzocaine topical anesthetic.
To avoid this problem, clean your ears regularly, dry them after taking a shower with a soft cloth, avoid diving or swimming when you have a cold or respiratory infection, don’t use Q-tips for wax removal (use them only on your outer parts only) and don’t remove foreign objects at home – let a doctor remove them.
FAQs and answers
To further enhance your understanding, we have included a few frequently asked questions and answers below.
1. I feel dizzy and my ears feel clogged
Dizziness is a common symptom associated with this problem and it is due to pressure build-up in the inner ear. Of course, this part is responsible for maintaining body balance.
If you feel dizzy, avoid moving fast, take plenty of fluids. If possible do not take much salt, caffeine, tobacco products, salt, and alcohol since these products do affect the circulation of blood and this might, in turn, worsen dizziness.
2. Clogged Eustachian tube vs. clogged ear canal
A clogged Eustachian tube occurs when the Eustachian tube becomes blocked by a number of reasons. This may include the common cold, infections, sinusitis, pressure variations due to rapid change in altitude, etc. These canals are what help balance air pressure in your inner ear and pressure outside the environment.
On the other hand, a clogged ear canal (running from outside and ends at the eardrum) can be caused by factors such as water, swimmer’s ear, excessive wax production, or foreign body. When this happens, the hearing will be hampered since sound cannot reach the eardrums well.
3. When with a sore throat
This is likely to be caused by a cold, sinus infection or other upper respiratory infections. See a doctor confirm the cause before recommending the best treatment option.
4. Can cleaning clogged ears unclog them?
Some people often want to clean them imagining they might unclog them this way. Unless it is the auditory canal that is clogged, cleaning alone cannot unclog them. However, it can help in reducing the chances of getting infections. As already seen, infections are one of the causes of this problem.
5. They feel clogged no wax or infection – eustachian tube dysfunction
Some people suffer from ears that feel clogged even when they do not have any of the above causes. This might be caused by the inability of the eustachian tube to open due to problems such as large adenoids (where adenoidectomy is the surgical treatment required) or any other condition that can block these tubes.
To some people, the tubes might open but they get filled back quickly. This will leave their ears feeling clogged always.