Your ear can get clogged from wax buildup or being at high elevation. In some cases, it can have a more serious cause.

Even though a clogged ear may not cause pain or discomfort, muffled sounds and straining to hear can be a real nuisance.

Your ear may unblock on its own within hours or days. But several home remedies and medications can provide fast relief.

As you treat a clogged ear, it’s also helpful to identify possible causes of the blockage. This way, you and your doctor can determine the best way to treat the clog and prevent future problems.

The following causes can cause your ears to get clogged.

1. Eustachian tube blockage

Eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD) is one possible cause of a clogged ear. The Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the throat. Fluid and mucus flow from the ear to the back of the throat through this tube, where it’s swallowed.

But instead of flowing down the throat, fluid and mucus can sometimes become trapped in the middle ear and clog the ear. This blockage usually accompanies an infection, such as the common cold, influenza, or sinusitis. Allergic rhinitis can also cause a blockage in the Eustachian tube.

Other symptoms of a blockage caused by an infection or allergies include:

  • runny nose
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • sore throat

Unblocking the Eustachian tube is important because the blockage can cause an ear infection, which is when a bacteria or viral infection gets into the middle ear.

High altitude

The Eustachian tube is also responsible for equalizing pressure in the middle ear. During rapid altitude change, it can’t always equalize pressure properly. As a result, the change in air pressure is felt in the ears.

Some people may experience temporary ear clogging while scuba diving or driving up a mountain, but it is most common during airplane take-off or landing.

A clogged ear is sometimes the only side effect of an altitude change. But if it is accompanied by pain, hearing loss, or dizziness, it is called a barotrauma or airplane ear.

In addition, if you also have a headache, nausea, or shortness of breath, you may be experiencing altitude sickness.

2. Ear infections

Ear infections can also clog your ear. There are two types of ear infections:

  • Outer ear infection (otitis externa or swimmer’s ear). This happens when water remains in the ear after swimming. This moist environment encourages the growth of bacteria or fungi. You’ll also likely experience pain in your ear, redness, fluid discharge, and fever.
  • Middle ear inflammation (otitis media). This is when microorganisms reach your middle ear, which is the space behind the eardrum. This is usually a complication of a respiratory infection. In addition to pain and fever, this infection can affect your balance and hearing.

3. Earwax

Earwax protects your ear by cleansing the ear canal and preventing debris from entering the ear.

Wax is normally soft, but it can harden and cause a blockage in the ear. Having too much wax can also cause an earwax blockage. When earwax triggers a clogged ear, other symptoms may include:

  • an earache
  • ringing in the ears
  • muffled hearing
  • dizziness

Using a cotton swab to clean inside the ear is sometimes responsible for these blockages. Cotton swabs shouldn’t be placed inside the ear. This method of cleaning can push earwax deeper into the ear.

4. Cholesteatoma

A cholesteatoma is a growth of skin behind the eardrum. It can be caused by middle ear infections, or it may be present at birth. It is not cancerous.

A cholesteatoma primarily feels like pressure in the ear, which may also feel like an ear blockage. Other symptoms include discharge from the ear that has a strong odor and gradual hearing loss.

Since the symptoms can be similar to an ear infection, a doctor will examine your ear to determine what you have.

Although a clogged ear is an annoying distraction, depending on the cause, it can treatable with home remedies.

Dislodge trapped fluid

If the cause is trapped fluid from the ear canal, you can insert your index finger into the affected ear and gently move your finger up and down.

A hairdryer on a low heat setting held a few inches from your ear might also help dry fluid in the ear.

Use the Valsalva maneuver

This trick helps open your Eustachian tube and release trapped fluid from behind your eardrum. To perform the Valsalva maneuver, take a deep breath and pinch your nose.

With your mouth closed, attempt to exhale gently through your nose. This should create enough pressure to “pop” or unclog the ear.

Don’t blow too hard to avoid damaging your eardrum. Once your Eustachian tube opens, chew gum or suck on hard candy to keep it open.

Another version of this exercise involves swallowing instead of blowing up. This is called the Toynbee maneuver.

Inhale steam

Turn on a hot shower and sit in the bathroom. The steam from the hot water can help loosen mucus in the ear. Another option is placing a hot or warm washcloth over your ear.

Take over-the-counter medication

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication can treat a clogged ear caused by sinus drainage, colds, or allergies.

You can try taking an antihistamine or cold or sinus medication containing a decongestant. Make sure to follow the directions on the label.

Ear drops

An earwax removal kit can soften and flush earwax from the ears. You can also place a few drops of warm mineral oil, baby oil, or hydrogen peroxide into your ear using a medication dropper.

Keep your head tilted for a few seconds after applying the drops to flush wax from the ear. Do not use a cotton swab or other object to remove earwax. Also, do not remove earwax if you have drainage from your ear, ear drum perforation, or ear tubes.

Learn more about safely removing earwax.

See a doctor if you cannot unclog your ears with home remedies. If you have a buildup of wax, manual wax removal by an ear, nose, and throat doctor may be necessary.

Otorhinolaryngologists specialize in caring for the ears. They may use specialized tools that create suction and remove wax from the ear.

Other doctors, like pediatricians or primary care doctors, are more likely to irrigate your ears with water and saline using a syringe.

If you have a Eustachian tube blockage, prescription medications might include:

  • antibiotics (ear infection, sinus infection)
  • oral antihistamines or nasal sprays

Pain may accompany a clogged ear, especially if you have an ear infection. Take an OTC pain reliever as directed, such as:

  • ibuprofen (Motrin)
  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • naproxen sodium (Aleve)

A clogged ear is usually temporary, with many successfully self-treating it with home remedies and OTC medications.

Contact your doctor if your ears remain blocked after trying home remedies, especially if you have hearing loss, ringing in the ears, or pain. You may need prescription-strength ear drops or manual wax removal.