A clogged ear can occur due to fluctuations in air pressure from diving into water, traveling by plane or reaching higher altitudes. It can also be a result of wax build-up, water in the ear, a cold, teeth grinding or Meniere’s syndrome.
Generally, a plugged ear resolves on its own within a few minutes, and is therefore not of clinical concern. However, if the ear becomes clogged for no apparent reason or if emerges with other symptoms (like pain, intense itching, dizziness or fever), it may be a sign of an ear infection or structural damage.
If your clogged ear does not improve within a few minutes, even after using home remedies like chewing gum or forcing a breath out of a closed mouth, you should see a doctor or ENT specialist for further assessment.
The most common causes of a clogged ear are:
1. Ear infection
One of the most common causes of a blocked ear is an ear infection (also known as otitis). The clogged feeling occurs when the ear canal becomes swollen and prevents sounds from reaching the inner ear.
Other symptoms associated with ear infections include a low-grade fever, redness in the ear, itchiness, and discharge. Otitis is more common in children, but it can happen at any age.
What to do: Ear infections require assessment and treatment prescribed by a doctor. If the infection is caused by a bacteria, antibiotics will be necessary.
2. Earwax build-up
This cause is also among the top reasons why ears become clogged. Although ear wax in itself is a healthy substance that is produced by the body to get rid of dirt and other foreign bodies, it can build-up and plug the ears, leading to hearing problems.
Earwax build-up can affect anyone, but it is more common in those who use cotton swabs to clean their ears. Cotton swabs tend to push the wax further back into the ear canal instead of removing it, and this compacts the wax.
What to do: Built-up ear wax can be removed by your doctor using an ear syringe technique. You can avoid build up by avoiding cotton swabs altogether and opting to clean the external ear with a towel only.
3. Water in the ear
Many times, a clogged ear is caused by water in the ear after showering or swimming. If left untreated, the ear is at greater risk for infection.
What to do: To remove water stuck in the ear, tilt your head toward the side of the affected ear, hold your breath, and jerk your head several times toward your shoulder.
Another option is to place the tip of a towel or clean napkin in your ear, without forcing it in. If the clogged ear does not resolve with these remedies and persists for several days, you should see a doctor for assessment and treatment as necessary.
To prevent water from going into the ears, you can use ear plugs when showering or swimming.
4. Pressure differences
As altitude increases, the pressure in the air can decrease, which can be felt in the ears. This is why you may feel your ear is clogged when flying in a plane or climbing a mountain. Some people may also report pain or discomfort with altitude changes.
What to do: You can utilize simple strategies to relieve this plugged ear sensation. During a plane’s take off, you should breathe through your mouth, such on a hard candy or chew gum, as these will help trapped air to exit the ear and prevent clogging. When landing, be sure to keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose.
If your ears remain clogged, continue to chew gum or open your mouth to yawn. This will help to stimulate facial muscle movement. You can also try plugging your nose and closing your mouth while exhaling.
5. Cold virus
A clogged ear can be a result of a cold virus, as the secretions that accumulate in the nose can interfere with air circulation and increase pressure within the ear.
What to do: Keeping your nasal airways clear will help to relieve clogged ears. This can be done by massaging the sinuses, taking a warm bath, drinking hot tea or inhaling eucalyptus vapors. Check out other natural remedies for a stuffy nose that you can try at home.
6. Eustachian tube dysfunction
The Eustachian tube is a small canal located in the middle ear, behind the nose. It helps to drain fluid from the ear. This tube can become blocked with upper respiratory infections (like a cold or sinusitis), leading to a clogged ear sensation.
What to do: Eustachian tuve obstruction does not usually require treatment, as it usually improves on its own. However, an obstruction related to a respiratory infection can be treated with anti-inflammatories, decongestants and antibiotics to treat the underlying infection.
A clogged ear can arise from abnormalities in the jaw. This can be a symptom of bruxism, which is involuntary grinding and tightening of the teeth. Grinding can stimulate jaw muscles in a way that causes a plugged ear sensation.
What to do: If your ears feel clogged from teeth grinding, you should see a dentist to assess your jaw and start treatment as possible. The dentist may recommend mouth guards to use while sleeping to prevent jaw muscle contractions.
Labyrinthitis is an inner ear inflammation that is associated with dizziness and a feeling of a clogged ear. Other common symptoms include ringing or buzzing in the ears, loss of balance and temporary hearing loss.
This condition generally does not have a cure and it flares up at certain points over the years. However, treatment and monitoring by a doctor can help to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
What to do: If you suspect you have labyrinthitis, you should see your doctor for assessment. You doctor may refer you to a specialist for ongoing treatment and interventions during flare-ups.
This is not a common ear problem but it is one that may happen in people who have recurrent ear infections. Cholesteatoma is an abnormal skin growth inside the ear canal, which leads to the formation of a cyst that prevents sound from coming through. This cyst causes the sensation of a clogged ear.
What to do: Most times, the doctor will prescribe ear drops to relieve mild symptoms, however a minor procedure may be necessary to permanently remove the cyst.
10. Ménière’s disease
This is a relatively rare disease that affects the inner ear and causes symptoms like clogged ears, loss of hearing, dizziness, and constant buzzing. This specific cause for this disease is not completely known, but it seems to be more frequent among people between the ages of 20 and 50.
What to do: Unfortunately, there is no cure for Ménière’s disease, but associated symptoms can be treated with prescription medications. Treatment is aimed at decreasing daily symptoms, like dizziness and the feeling of clogged ears.
11. Acoustic neuroma
An acoustic neuroma, also referred to as vestibular schwannoma, is a benign tumor that grows on the nerve responsible for hearing. This growth can interfere with hearing and cause symptoms like headaches, constantly hearing sounds (like beeping), pressure within the ear and clogged ears.
What to do: The severity of symptoms depends on the size of the growth. In some cases, patients may need radiation therapy or surgery to remove the tumor.