Why Do My Ears Feel Clogged?
When your ears feel clogged, it can be a difficult symptom to ignore. You may be uncomfortable, with a sensation of pressure or fullness in your ear, and your hearing may be muffled, which can leave you feeling frustrated and isolated.
Often your ears will unblock on their own, providing instant relief, but sometimes other treatments are needed to sort out the problem. Here, HearingTracker looks at the main causes of clogged ears and available treatment options.
Causes of clogged ears
There are many conditions that can trigger that clogged-ear sensation. Here are some of the most common ones:
- Impacted ear wax - Earwax is a natural protectant, but too much of it can wind up becoming impacted, meaning it has built up to the point that it blocks the canal. This can cause feelings of fullness and result in hearing loss.
- Auditory issues - A clogged sensation, termed aural fullness, can be related to auditory nerve issues, such as a benign growth known as an acoustic neuroma, or inner-ear disorders such as Ménière’s disease.
- Ear infections - Whether it is an infection in the middle ear, most commonly found in children, or an infection in the bones surrounding the ear (termed mastoiditis), inflammation and infection will result in a clogged sensation, with or without the presence of hearing loss. A physician will be able to treat for the infection, and the clogged feeling should subside.
- Hearing loss - Oftentimes, patients with hearing loss report feeling they are underwater or clogged up. A sudden hearing loss may make the sensation more noticeable, as opposed to a gradually progressing hearing loss due to the aging process.
- Eustachian tube dysfunction - The Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the back of the throat. It plays an important role in helping to equalize pressure between the middle ear and external environment and draining fluid from the middle ear. When the Eustachian tube closes or is blocked, it can result in a clogged-ear sensation. (This is what we often experience when we’re on a plane and air pressure shifts.) Head colds, respiratory or sinus infections, and other viruses can trigger this kind of problem.
Which clogged-ears symptoms are serious?
If your ears feel clogged for several minutes after a plane flight, it’s nothing serious. But if you experience any of following (OR one or more of the following) symptoms, it’s important to seek medical care:
- Your ear feels clogged for more than a few hours after flying
- You feel you cannot hear from the affected ear(s)
- You are experiencing tinnitus, or ringing/buzzing in the ear(s)
- You recently had a fever or flu-like symptoms
- You have drainage, or discharge, from the affected ear(s)
- You are experiencing pain or sensitivity in the ear(s)
These could signal the need for medical intervention, so reach out to your healthcare provider for their recommendation.
How earwax can cause that clogged feeling
Earwax, or cerumen, plays an important role in protecting our ear canal. It traps dirt, preventing it from entering the ear and causing damage. Sometimes, though, the ear canal has too much wax, which can build up, harden, and become impacted, causing a blockage.
“Excessive earwax can cause temporary hearing loss or mild discomfort,” said Houston audiologist Sarah McAlexander, AuD. In addition to your ear feeling clogged, other symptoms that suggest a build-up of ear wax, include:
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Muffled hearing
- Itching, odor, or discharge
- A cough
“For excessive ear wax, we recommend seeing a medical professional (such as your primary-care provider, ENT, or audiologist) to remove the wax,” advised McAlexander. “Attempting to remove the earwax at home via cotton swabs can be extremely dangerous, as you may accidentally push the earwax further into the canal or even damage your eardrum.” Removing the excess should resolve your problem.
When the Eustachian tubes cause trouble
The Eustachian tubes run from the middle ear to the back of our nose and throat, draining fluid from the middle ear and equalizing air pressure. Colds, flu, and allergies cause the nasal membranes to swell and mucus production to increase. This mucus can travel up to the middle ear, causing more inflammation and preventing the Eustachian tube from opening and closing properly.
This means secretions from the middle ear do not drain properly – a condition known as Eustachian tube dysfunction. “Symptoms may include temporary hearing loss, pain in the ear, congestion, sore throat, fever, and other common cold and flu symptoms,” said McAlexander. This swelling and excess fluid can often make your ears feel clogged.
“Eustachian tube dysfunction may resolve on its own as your cold symptoms or allergies resolve. Over-the-counter medications for colds, flu, or allergies can help in these cases,” McAlexander told HearingTracker. “In the case of an ear infection or sinus infection, consult with your primary care provider or ENT physician to determine whether additional treatments are necessary.”
How altitude changes can impact your ears
Many of use experience clogged ears during airplane take-off or when driving up a mountain. This is caused by a change in air pressure.
“With a change in altitude, the Eustachian tube may be unable to quickly react to the pressure shifts as the elevation changes. Typically, the only symptom of this will be a feeling of pressure or fullness in the ears and a temporary hearing loss,” explained McAlexander.
What can you do to help your ears readjust? “If your ears feel clogged after changing altitude, chewing gum, yawning, or performing a Valsalva maneuver may help provide relief,” noted McAlexander.
To do the Valsalva maneuver, first take a deep breath. Next, pinch your nose shut, close your mouth, and then bear down, as if you were going to blow up a balloon, for 10 seconds, while still holding your breath. Exhale. You may feel or hear a “pop” as the Eustachian tubes open and the pressure in your ears equalizes. Note that this technique causes blood pressure to drop, so if you are prone to low blood pressure, check with your doctor first.
Could noise damage be the culprit?
Hearing loss due to noise damage is also known as noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), and it can result in a clogged sensation or ringing in your ears. Many of us know this feeling after attending a loud live concert. Sometimes, NIHL is temporary, resolving without intervention within 48 hours.
Other times, however, it’s not. Loud noises can damage the delicate hearing hair cells in the inner ear. Once these cells are damaged, they cannot grow back, and there is currently no treatment to restore them. Permanent NIHL results from exposure to excessive noise over a long period of time – for example, repeatedly listening to music at dangerous volume levels through headphones. It can also happen due to a one-time exposure to exceptionally loud noise, such as an explosion.
To help prevent NIHL, be sure to take the following precautions:
- Wear earplugs for activities that involve high levels of noise.
- Use headphones and earbuds safely. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends keeping the volume level below 85 dB. For iPhone users, there are apps and settings that can be used to track volume levels on personal audio devices.
- Move away from excessively loud noise; e.g. stand away from the speakers at concerts.
Understanding acoustic neuromas
An acoustic neuroma is a small non-cancerous growth or tumor that develops on the vestibular nerve. This type of tumor is usually slow-growing but as they become larger, they can put pressure on the nerves in the inner ear, causing a feeling of fullness.
According to McAlexander, “Additional symptoms of an acoustic neuroma include one-sided hearing loss, ringing in the ears, and dizziness.” She recommends consulting your doctor if you have an ongoing sensation of clogged ears that isn’t attributed to other causes. Your healthcare professional can determine if an acoustic neuroma is the culprit; treatment typically involves surgery or radiation therapy.
When balance disorders are to blame
Certain inner ear conditions can cause the feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear. This is due to an imbalance of fluids in the inner ear.
One example is Ménière's disease, which causes dizziness or vertigo that can result in a fall, as well as tinnitus or hearing loss. Some people experience Ménière's episodes for a few minutes or several hours. Typically, symptoms completely disappear between bouts. While there is currently no cure for Ménière's disease, treatments can help reduce the severity and frequency of the issue. If you suspect you may have Meniere’s disease, seek medical attention to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.
A final word about clogged ears
Often, having clogged ears is temporary and easily resolved – sometimes with no intervention at all. But if your ears feel clogged on an ongoing basis without an obvious trigger, like a head cold, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your hearing healthcare provider.