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. By doing so, you and your doctor can determine the best way to treat the clog and prevent future problems.
1. Eustachian tube blockage
An Eustachian tube blockage is one possible cause of a clogged ear. The Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the throat. Fluid and mucus flows 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
- sore throat
Unblocking the Eustachian tube is important because trapped fluid can cause an ear infection, which is when a bacteria or viral infection gets into the middle ear.
Swimming can also trigger an ear infection. This happens when water remains in the ear after swimming. Known as swimmer’s ear, this moist environment encourages the growth of bacteria or fungus. Signs of an ear infection include:
- ear pain
- fluid drainage
2. Higher altitude
Some people experience temporary ear clogging while scuba diving, driving up a mountain, or flying in an airplane. A rapid change in air pressure outside the body causes this blockage.
The Eustachian tube is responsible for equalizing pressure in the middle ear. But at higher altitudes, it can’t always equalize pressure properly. As a result, the change in air pressure is felt in the ears. A clogged ear is sometimes the only side effect of an altitude change. If you develop high altitude sickness, you may also have a headache, nausea, or shortness of breath.
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. When earwax triggers a clogged ear, other symptoms may include:
- an earache
- ringing in the ears
Using a cotton swab to clean inside the ear is sometimes responsible for these blockages. Cotton swabs shouldn’t be placed inside of the ear. This method of cleaning can push earwax deeper into the ear.
4. Acoustic neuroma
Acoustic neuroma is a benign growth that develops on the cranial nerve leading from the inner ear to the brain. These tumors are usually slow-growing and small. However, as they become larger, they can put pressure on nerves in the inner ear. This can cause a clogged ear, hearing loss, and a ringing in the ear.
Treatments for a clogged ear
Although a clogged ear is an annoying distraction, it’s usually treatable with home remedies.
Use the Valsalva maneuver
This simple trick helps open your Eustachian tube. To perform this 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 opened.
Turn on a hot shower and sit in the bathroom for 10 to 15 minutes. The steam from the hot water helps loosen mucus in the ear. Another option is placing a hot or warm washcloth over your ear.
Dislodge trapped fluid
Insert your index finger into the affected ear and gently move your finger up and down. This technique helps remove trapped fluid. A hair dryer on a low heat setting held a few inches from your ear might also help dry fluid in the ear.
Take over-the-counter medication
Over-the-counter (OTC) medication can treat a clogged ear caused by sinus drainage, colds, or allergies. Take cold or sinus medication containing a decongestant, or take an antihistamine. Make sure to follow the directions on the label.
An earwax removal kit (Debrox Earwax Removal Kit or Murine Ear Wax Removal System) can soften and flush earwax from the ears. You can also place two or three drops of warm mineral oil, baby oil, or hydrogen peroxide into your ear using a medicine dropper. Keep your head tilted for a few seconds after applying the drops to flush wax from the ear.
When should you see a doctor?
See a doctor if you’re unable to 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. These doctors use specialized tools to create suction and remove wax from the ear. If you have a Eustachian tube blockage, prescription medications might include:
- antibiotic (ear infection, sinus infection)
- antifungal (swimmer’s ear)
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)
Since acoustic neuroma is a noncancerous growth, your doctor may only suggest surgery if the tumor is large or affects your hearing.
Outlook for clogged ears
A clogged ear is usually temporary, with many people successfully self-treating with home remedies and OTC medications. Contact your doctor if your ears remain blocked after experimenting with different 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.
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