You may hear cracking or popping in your ear if you have a middle ear infection, an issue with a tube in your ear, or another condition affecting the jaw or ear. Treatment can depend on the specific cause and symptoms.
We’ve all experienced unusual sensations or sounds in our ears from time to time. Some examples include muffled hearing, buzzing, hissing, or even ringing.
Another unusual sound is a crackling or popping in the ear. Crackling in the ear is often compared to the noise that a bowl of Rice Krispies makes after you’ve just poured milk over them.
Several different conditions can cause crackling in the ear. We explore these causes, how they’re treated, and when to call your doctor.
Several conditions may lead to a crackling sound in the ears.
Eustachian tube dysfunction
Your eustachian tube is a small, narrow tube that connects the middle part of your ear to the back of your nose and upper throat. You have one in each ear.
Eustachian tubes have several functions, including:
- keeping the pressure in your middle ear equalized with the pressure in your surrounding environment
- draining fluid from your middle ear
- preventing infection in the middle ear
Typically, your eustachian tubes are closed. They open when you do things like yawn, chew, or swallow. You may have also felt them opening when you pop your ears while on a plane.
Eustachian tube dysfunction happens when your eustachian tubes don’t open or close properly. This can lead to a crackling or popping sound in your ear.
Other symptoms of this condition may include:
- a feeling of fullness or congestion in your ear
- ear pain
- muffled hearing or hearing loss
- dizziness or vertigo
There are several possible causes of eustachian tube dysfunction. They can include:
- an infection such as the common cold or sinusitis
- enlarged tonsils or adenoids
- irritants in the air, such as cigarette smoke or pollution
- cleft palate
- nasal polyps
- nasal tumors
Each of these potential causes can prevent the eustachian tubes from functioning properly by causing inflammation or physical blockage of the tube.
Acute otitis media
Acute otitis media is an infection in your middle ear. It’s more common in children than in adults.
Eustachian tube dysfunction can contribute to the development of acute otitis media. When the tubes are narrowed or blocked, fluid can accumulate in the middle ear and become infected.
People with acute otitis media may experience ear crackling due to narrowed or blocked eustachian tubes. Other common symptoms in adults include:
- ear pain
- fluid draining from the ear
- difficulty hearing
Children may experience additional symptoms like:
- irritability or crying more than usual
- trouble sleeping
- low appetite
Earwax helps to lubricate and protect your ear canal from infection. It’s made up of secretions from glands in your outer ear canal, which is the part closest to the opening of your ear.
Earwax typically moves out of your ear naturally. However, it can sometimes get stuck in your ear canal and cause a blockage. This can happen if you push the earwax deeper into your ear by probing with an object such as a cotton swab.
Sometimes, your ears may make more earwax than needed, and this can also cause a buildup.
Some symptoms of earwax buildup can include popping or crackling sounds in your ear as well as:
- ears that feel plugged or full
- ear discomfort or pain
- partial hearing loss
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders
Your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) attaches your jawbone to your skull. You have one on each side of your head, located just in front of your ears.
The joint works as a hinge, and can also perform sliding motions. A disc of cartilage located between the two bones helps to keep the movement of this joint smooth.
Injury or damage to the joint or erosion of cartilage can lead to TMJ disorders.
If you have a TMJ disorder, you may hear or feel clicking or popping very close to your ear, particularly when you open your mouth or chew.
Other possible symptoms of a TMJ disorder include:
- pain, which can occur in the jaw, ear, or at the TMJ
- stiffness in the muscles of the jaw
- having a limited range of jaw movement
- locking of the jaw
Middle ear myoclonus (MEM)
Middle ear myoclonus (MEM) is a rare type of tinnitus. It happens due to the spasm of specific muscles in your ear — the stapedius or tensor tympani.
These muscles help to transmit vibrations from the eardrum and bones in the middle ear into the inner ear.
What exactly causes MEM is unknown. It may be linked to a congenital condition, acoustic injury, and other types of tremors or spasms such as hemifacial spasms.
Spasm of the stapedius muscle can cause a crackling or buzzing sound. When the tensor tympani muscle spasms, you may hear a clicking sound.
The intensity or pitch of these noises can vary from one person to the next. Other characteristics of these sounds can also vary. For example, they may:
- be rhythmic or irregular
- occur continuously, or come and go
- happen in one or both ears
Make sure to see your doctor for crackling in your ear if you’re experiencing any of the following:
- crackling that’s interfering with your day-to-day activities or making it hard for you to hear
- symptoms that are severe, persistent, or keep coming back
- signs of an ear infection that last longer than 1 day
- ear discharge that contains blood or pus
In order to diagnose your condition, your doctor will take your medical history and perform a physical examination. This will likely include examining your ears, throat, and jaw.
In some cases, more specialized tests may be needed. The types of tests your doctor may order include:
- testing the movement of your eardrum
- a hearing exam
- imaging tests like CT or MRIs.
The treatment of crackling in your ear depends on what’s causing it. Some examples of treatments your doctor may prescribe include:
- Antibiotics to treat an ear infection.
- Earwax removal by a specialist if earwax is causing a blockage.
- Placement of ear tubes in your eardrums to help equalize pressure in your middle ear and to help with the drainage of fluid.
- Balloon dilation of the eustachian tube, which uses a small balloon catheter to help open the eustachian tubes.
- Prescription medications like tricyclic antidepressants or muscle relaxants for relief of pain associated with TMJ disorders.
- Surgery for TMJ when more conservative methods aren’t working to relieve symptoms.
If the crackling in your ear isn’t severe and isn’t accompanied by other symptoms, you may want to try some home remedies.
If the crackling doesn’t get better, or gets worse, it’s a good idea to follow up with your doctor.
- Pop your ears. Sometimes by simply swallowing, yawning, or chewing, you can unclog your ears and help equalize the pressure in your middle ear.
- Nasal irrigation. Also known as a sinus flush, this saltwater rinse can help get rid of excess mucus from your nose and sinuses that may be contributing to eustachian tube dysfunction.
- Earwax removal. You can soften and remove earwax by using mineral oil, hydrogen peroxide, or over-the-counter ear drops.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) products. You can try medications like NSAIDs for reducing inflammation and pain, or decongestants or antihistamines to reduce congestion.
- TMJ exercises. You may be able to ease the pain and discomfort of TMJ disorders by doing specific exercises, as well as massaging the area or applying an ice pack.
The following tips may help prevent conditions that can cause crackling in your ears:
- Try to prevent respiratory infections. Illnesses like the common cold and flu can often lead to eustachian tube dysfunction. To avoid getting sick, wash your hands frequently, avoid sharing personal items with others, and stay away from those who may be sick.
- Don’t use cotton swabs to clean your ears. This can push earwax deeper into your ear canal.
- Try to avoid environmental irritants. Allergens, secondhand tobacco smoke, and pollution may contribute to eustachian tube dysfunction.
- Stay away from loud noises. Being exposed to loud noises can cause damage to your ears and contribute to conditions like tinnitus. If you’re going to be in a loud environment, use hearing protection.
Sometimes you may experience crackling or popping in your ears. This is often described as a “Rice Krispie”-like sound.
Crackling in the ears can be caused by several different conditions, such as eustachian tube dysfunction, acute otitis media, or the buildup of earwax.
If the crackling in your ears isn’t too severe, you can try various home remedies to help get rid of the noise. However, if self-care measures don’t work, or you have severe or prolonged symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor.