It's a common experience: You wake up one day feeling fine — except your ear is stopped up. The annoying sensation of clogged ears seems to happen to almost everyone at one point or another. What's even more frustrating is that you often have no clue as to why, or what to do about it.
One of the more perplexing aspects of clogged ears is that often only one ear is affected. "I hear this all the time," says Michael D. Seidman, MD, professor of otolaryngology head and neck surgery at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and founder of PEAK 365. "Patients will say, 'I only get wax in one ear,' or 'Only my right ear blocks when I scuba dive."
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While it may seem that both our ears are the same, they're not. For example, your right Eustachian tube might be bigger than the left. "We are not as symmetrical as we think," Dr. Seidman says.
Clogged ears can have many different causes. Understanding the reason behind that uncomfortable feeling in your ear is the first step to getting relief.
We've outlined the most common causes of blocked ears here, along with advice on what to do about each.
"Earwax is the number one cause of clogged ears," says Yu-Lan Mary Ying, MD, associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
And sometimes it's a matter of consistency rather than quantity: "Some people have oilier earwax than others, and it balls up, causing that feeling of fullness."
Fix it: To unclog your ear, it's OK to give over-the-counter earwax removal drops a try, but go easy on them. "Some people think more is better with these, but too much can irritate and make things worse," says Dr. Ying.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the best at-home earwax treatments are those containing hydrogen peroxide or other kinds of peroxide. Trying to clean out the wax with a cotton swab can sometimes leave bits of cotton behind and push the wax in deeper, which only worsens the problem.
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2. Cold or Allergies
Another very common reason for ears that feel clogged and muffled is allergies or a cold. "Anything that causes our nose to stuff up can result in that feeling of talking in a tunnel," says Dr. Seidman.
Fix it: As the cold or allergies resolve, the Eustachian tube blockage usually does as well. Over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants are fine to try for a few days, says Dr. Seidman, with one caution: "If you have high blood pressure, heart disease or prostate issues, check with your doctor first."
3. Air Travel or Scuba Diving
Catching a flight or diving deep underwater can both cause plugged ears that don't hurt. In both cases, pressure in the ears is to blame.
"The Eustachian tube normally equalizes pressure in our ears," says Dr. Seidman. But sometimes this tube has trouble adjusting when it's been subjected to underwater or airplane cabin pressure.
Fix it: Frequent fliers know all the tricks to open a blocked ear: chewing gum, swallowing, opening and closing your mouth, pinching your nostrils and gently blowing through your nose.
Sometimes none of that helps very much, though, and you just have to wait it out. Dr. Seidman says that it can take two or three days for your ears to unclog after a flight, and six to eight weeks after scuba diving.
If you have a cold already, the effects can be even longer lasting and more painful. "That's why I advise never flying or diving with a cold," he says.
4. An Irritation You’re Unaware Of
Believe it or not, "an external canal irritant" that keeps occurring can eventually lead to an infection and a feeling of fullness in the irritated ear, says Dr. Ying. "Many people have habits they aren't aware of, where they scratch their ear with pens or scrape them with bobby pins or brushes when styling their hair."
Beauty products, like hair dye, shampoo and sunscreen that get into the ear, can be to blame for blocked ears as well.
Fix it: Be aware of how you touch your ears and what you touch them with, advises Dr. Ying. If you notice your ear feels full or swollen not long after you try a new hair or skin product, that may be the culprit. Check with a doctor to be sure, though.
5. Ear Infection
While a middle ear infection is more common in children than adults, if you have big adenoids and/or big tonsils, recurrent ear infections are possible, says Dr. Seidman.
With ear infections can come clogged and muffled ears, along with ringing in the ears, pain and a fever.
Fix it: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ear infections can resolve without antibiotics, but you should stay hydrated, rest and take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain or fever.
If your symptoms get worse, though, or last more than two or three days, call your doctor.
6. Superior Canal Dehiscence (SCD)
SCD is having a small opening in the bone that covers one of the semicircular canals of your inner ear. Dr. Seidman notes that SCD can be a cause of clogged ears, but definitely a less common one.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, aside from fullness or pressure in the ears, other symptoms of SCD include dizziness and sensitivity to loud noises.
Fix it: If you've ruled out other causes for your clogged ears and think it's possible you may have SCD, contact an otolaryngologist for testing.
7. Patulous Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (PETD)
PETD is a disorder of the valve in the Eustachian tube that prevents it from closing. One of the main signs of PETD is a feeling of fullness in the ear, says Dr. Seidman. The other, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, is the disconcerting ability to hear your own voice too loudly, and your breathing, stomach churning and blood pumping very clearly.
Fix it: Again, if more common causes for your ear discomfort have been eliminated, and you suspect you may have PETD, contact an otolaryngologist for diagnosis and treatment.
When to See a Doctor for Clogged Ears
As you can see, many of the reasons for clogged ears are not generally a cause for concern. But it's smart to consult a doctor if you have:
- Any ear discomfort that lasts more than two weeks
- Hearing loss. It can be hard to tell the difference between actual hearing loss and the reduced hearing that naturally goes along with clogged ears. Dr. Ying has a way to tell the difference. "Ask a friend to call you, and put your phone next to your ear on maximum volume. Is your hearing just dampened — or do you have no idea at all what they're saying?"
- Ear pain
- Drainage from the ear
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.