What Can Cause a Clogged Ear (and What To Do)

Clinical review: Manuel Reis
Registered Nurse
April 2022

Clogged ears are a common symptom, and are especially prone to happen after diving into water, traveling by plane, or reaching higher altitudes. With these particular situations, the feeling of clogged ears usually resolves on its own within a few minutes and is not indicative of any health problem. 

However, if your ears become blocked for no apparent reason or if you experience blocked ears with other symptoms like intense itchiness, vertigo or fever, it may be a sign of an infection or other health problem that requires assessment and treatment. 

The common causes of clogged ears are: 

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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. Labyrinthitis

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. 

4. Cholesteatoma

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. 

5. 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.

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Edited by Tua Saude editing team in April 2022. Clinical review completed by Manuel Reis - Registered Nurse in April 2022.

References

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  • FONSECA, Inês S. Distúrbios temporomandibulares e patologia auditiva. Tese de mestrado, 2018. Instituto de Ciências da Saúde da Universidade Católica Portuguesa.
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Clinical review:
Manuel Reis
Registered Nurse
Manuel graduated in 2013 and is licensed to practice under the Ordem dos Enfermeiros de Portugal, with license #79026. He specializes in Advanced Clinical Phytotherapy.