Causes of Clogged Ears and How to Unclog Them

Dr. Lusine Mamikonyan. ENT Doctor

By Dr. Lusine Mamikonyan, ENT physician, Masters in Public Health.
Know more about Dr. Lusine Mamikonyan

Clogged ears or blocked ears are a common problem that can affect anyone, regardless of age or health. They can cause discomfort, pain, hearing loss, and infection if left untreated. Clogged ears are also known to cause tinnitus or ringing in the ears. But what causes clogged ears and how can you treat them effectively? In this article, we will answer these questions and provide you with some useful tips to clear clogged ears.

Why Does My Ear Feel Clogged?

Clogged ears are a condition where the ear canal or the Eustachian tube becomes blocked or obstructed. The Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and helps to equalize the pressure between the outer ear and the middle ear.

The Eustachian tube also helps to drain the excess fluids and mucus. The pressure does not equalize or fluids accumulate if the Eustachian tube is blocked resulting in a clogged ear feeling.

If the Eustachian tube is unable to equalize the pressure, it can also affect the movement or vibration of the eardrum resulting in hearing loss.

Clogged Ears Causes

Some of the common conditions that can lead to clogged ears include:

• Clogged Ears Due to Earwax Buildup

Earwax is a natural substance that protects your ears from dirt and bacteria. However, earwax buildup blocks the ear canal causing clogged ears, pain, itching, and hearing loss.

According to Dr. Richard Rosenfeld, MD, PhD, FACS, Professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery – “Earwax is the most common cause of ear congestion in adults, especially if they use cotton swabs to clean their ears.”

How to Clear Clogged Ears Due to Earwax Buildup

If your clogged ears are due to earwax buildup, you can initially try to remove the excess earwax yourself by using home earwax cleaning methods. You can use OTC earwax softeners such as Debrox or olive oil, hydrogen peroxide, and warm water.

Do not use Q tips or cotton earbuds as they may push the earwax deeper into the ear canal or damage the eardrum. If the earwax is hardened or impacted, it is advisable to visit a doctor or an audiologist as they remove the earwax safely and effectively using special instruments. Ear irrigation and suction method is very effective.

Avoid earwax cleaning home remedies if you have eardrum perforation, ear infection, ear surgery, or any other ear-related complications.
Do not try ear candling at home as it can cause burns.

• Clogged Ears from Colds, Allergies and Sinus

Fluid can accumulate in the middle ear due to colds, allergies, sinus infections, or other respiratory problems. This can create pressure and inflammation in the ear, leading to ear clogging, ringing, and reduced hearing.

Lady suffering from clogged ears due to colds and allergies
Clogged ears due to colds and Allergies. Image courtesy: freepik

How to Clear Clogged Ears Due to Cold, Allergies, and Sinus?

You can use decongestants to reduce the swelling and inflammation in the nasal passages and the eustachian tube. Antihistamines can be used if the clogged ears are due to allergies.

Decongestants can be taken orally, or sprayed into the nose as nasal sprays. However, you should not use them without consulting your doctor, as prolonged use can cause side effects such as dryness and irritation.

Your doctor will prescribe nasal steroid sprays or antibiotic drops if the infection is severe. The first line of antibiotic treatment is Amoxicillin. In case, you are allergic to Amoxicillin, your doctor may prescribe third-generation cephalosporin plus clindamycin or doxycycline.

• Clogged Ears Due to Ear Infections

Clogged ears are a common symptom of middle ear infections or otitis media. Eustachian tubes become swollen and prevent equalization of pressure and drainage of fluids. This leads to mucus build-up in the middle ear and a clogged ear feeling.

Children are prone to ear infections and can suffer from clogged ears. Read our article 9 Symptoms of Ear Infection in Babies.

How to Clear Clogged Ears Due to Ear Infections

Over-the-counter ear drops can help dislodge trapped fluid and ease the clogged ear sensation. Inhaling steam or using a warm compress can help.

Visit your doctor if you do not notice any reduction in the symptoms, the first line of antibiotic treatment is Amoxicillin. In case, you are allergic to Amoxicillin, your doctor may prescribe azithromycin, clarithromycin, or cephalosporin such as cefdinir, cefpodoxime, or cefuroxime.

Otitis media with effusion (OME) or glue ear can also clog ears and muffle the hearing. Glue ear is a common condition that mostly affects children and occasionally affects adults. Glue ear, sometimes called sticky ear occurs when fluid builds up behind the eardrum or in the middle ear. Read more about glue ear diagnosis and treatment options.

• Clogged Ears or Water-Blocked Ears

Your ears can clog not only due to swimming but also after a shower. Dry your ears immediately as a wet and moist ear canal can cause ear infection.

How to Clear Clogged Ears or Water-Blocked Ears

water-blocked ears are very common, in most cases tilting your head for the water to seep out is effective. If the ears do not unclog, pull, or tug your ears gently, you will feel a warm liquid oozing out.

Use a hair dryer at minimum heat settings to dry your ears or use a 50:50 mixture of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar. Apply three or four drops of the mixture to the ear, the rubbing alcohol will dry your ears, and the vinegar will create an acidic environment that will discourage the growth of bacteria.

Avoid ear drops if you are suffering from eardrum perforation, ear infection, ear surgery, or any other ear-related complications.

• Clogged Ears Due to Changes in Altitude or Barotrauma (Airplane Ear)

Your Eustachian tubes equalize the pressure on both sides of the eardrum, in case of a blockage due to swelling or fluid accumulation in the Eustachian tubes, equalization does not take place, especially in case of rapid changes in pressure. This can lead to clogged and painful ears.
How to Clear Clogged Ears Due to Changes in Altitude

Lady holding her nose and blowing to clear clogged ears. Ear Zone Blog image
Lady holding her nose and blowing to clear clogged ears. Image created by karlyukav on freepik

How to Clear Clogged Ears Due to Changes in Altitude or Airplane Ear

Swallowing, yawning, or chewing hard candy or gum can open up the blocked Eustachian tubes giving relief from airplane ear. If this does not work, take a deep breath and try to gently blow out of your nose while pinching your nostrils closed and keeping your mouth shut. You will hear a popping noise if your ears are unclogged.

The use of nasal sprays before boarding the flight prevents airplane ear.

• Do not blow too hard. This technique is not advisable if you have an operated or ruptured eardrum.
• If You have high blood pressure or have a heart rhythm problem known as arrhythmia.

• Blocked Ears Due to Clogged Eustachian Tube or Eustachian Tube Dysfunction

Eustachian tubes are small tubes that connect your middle ears and the upper throat. The end of the Eustachian tube close to the middle ear is prone to infection from otitis media and the infection can lead to clogged Eustachian tubes. The pressure cannot be effectively equalized due to the obstruction leading to a clogged ears feeling.

How to Clear Clogged Ears Due to Eustachian Tube Dysfunction

Wait for the infection to heal by itself. Inhale steam or use over-the-counter decongestants or antihistamines. Valsalva maneuver 1 helps to pop the ears.

Visit your doctor if the infection persists beyond two weeks. Your doctor will prescribe suitable antibiotics.

Balloon dilation of the Eustachian tube is a minimally invasive method for treating chronic obstructive Eustachian tube dysfunction. The balloon is kept inflated for about two minutes helping to flatten out any inflammation. The balloon is then deflated and removed from the Eustachian tube. Success rates of 63% to 92.3% have been reported. 2

• Clogged Ear Feeling Due to Acoustic Neuroma

An acoustic neuroma also known as vestibular schwannoma is a type of non-cancerous tumor that develops on the nerve that runs from the inner ear to the brain. The tumor exerts pressure and gives a feeling of fullness in the ears, similar to water-blocked ears.

Acoustic Neuroma is generally accompanied by headaches, hearing loss, dizziness, imbalance, and tinnitus.

Acoustic Neuroma Treatment for Clogged Ears

Acoustic neuroma treatment options include radiation and microsurgery.
It is easier to operate if the tumor is diagnosed early and is small. Radiation therapy is advised in the case of elders or if the person is in poor health.

Immediate treatment is advised as it can damage the hearing nerve and the facial nerves.

Clogged Ear Feeling Due to Cholesteatoma

Cholesteatoma is an abnormal, noncancerous skin growth or a cyst behind the eardrum. Repeated ear infection is one of the causes of cholesteatoma. The cholesteatoma can erode the bones of the middle ear.

Cholesteatoma exerts pressure and gives a feeling of ear fullness. The other symptoms of cholesteatoma are:

  • Ear ache
  • Hearing loss
  • Ear discharge
  • Dizziness

Cholesteatoma Treatment for Clogged Ears

cholesteatoma surgery is the only option. The surgery is done under general anesthesia and takes two to three hours. In case, the bones are eroded or the eardrum is damaged, the bones are replaced with a man-made plastic or metal bone implant and an eardrum graft is used to rebuild the eardrum.

Do not delay cholesteatoma surgery or treatment as it can cause severe complications and life-threatening conditions.

Home Remedies for Clogged Ears

Mild cases of infections and clogged ears resolve on their own, certain home remedies give relief and help to clear clogged ears. It is important that you should know the cause of your clogged ears before trying out the home remedies.

• Warm Compress

Apply a warm compress to the affected ear for 10-15 minutes at a time.

• Over-the-counter Medication

Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can help relieve pain and inflammation. Ciprofloxacin ear drops are commonly used.

• Using over-the-counter Decongestant

Decongestants can help to open up the Eustachian tubes and relieve fluid buildup in the middle ear. Use nasal sprays or saline sprays.

• Valsalva Maneuver

The Valsalva maneuver is a technique that can help to equalize pressure in the middle ear.3

• Steam Inhalation

This can help to open up the Eustachian tubes.

Image of a person inhaling steam and gargling with saline water to clear clogged ears. Ear Zone blog
Clear clogged ear by inhaling steam and gargling with saline water. Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons

• Yawning or Chewing Gum

The chewing or yawning action can help to open up the Eustachian tubes.

• Massage Your Ears

Gently move your finger up and down over the ear that is blocked. This may help dislodge trapped fluid.

• Jaw Flexing Movement

Moving your jaw up and down can help to open the Eustachian tube and equalize the pressure in your middle ear.

• Pop Your Ears

You can try to pop your ears by holding your nose and blowing gently.

Clogged ears can be a frustrating and uncomfortable experience, but there are many ways to address the problem. By understanding the causes of clogged ears and taking steps to prevent them, you can keep your ears healthy and clear. If clogged ears are a recurring problem, see your doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions.


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