Ear congestion is typically more of an annoyance than a serious condition, resulting in difficulty hearing and ear pressure. It usually disappears on its own without treatment or can be managed with over-the-counter medications. However, if your symptoms persist or are severe, you may need to see your doctor.
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Ear congestion, or eustachian tube dysfunction, is associated with a sudden difficulty in hearing, muffling of noises, a sense of “fullness” or pressure in the ear, “popping” or “crackling” in the ear, ringing of the ear and difficulty maintaining your balance. Typically, no pain is experienced unless you're traveling on a plane. Ear congestion may last for several hours or several days.
The most common cause of ear congestion is inflammation of the eustachian tube and accumulation of mucus or fluid in the middle of your ear due to allergies or infections, according to FamilyDoctor.org, an information site published by the American Academy of Family Physicians. The eustachian tube is a tube that extends from your middle ear to your throat. When this tube becomes blocked, your eardrum is unable to move properly, and noises become muffled. The presence of fluid can cause a pressure popping or crackling sensation in your ear. Ear congestion may also be caused by an increase in the pressure of your environment. This can occur when you descend in airplanes, travel down mountains or into deep valleys or dive in the water.
Children are more likely to experience ear congestion than adults because their eustachian tubes are shorter. This allows infections to travel to the middle ear more easily. Children also have a more difficult time getting rid of infections for this reason. Other risk factors include obesity and smoking.
Ear congestion usually disappears on its own without medical treatment. FamilyDoctor.org recommends trying to physically open the eustachian tube by chewing gum, swallowing, yawning or by pinching your nose and then blowing your cheeks out with your mouth closed. You should feel a pop if the tube opens successfully. If these techniques do not help, you may try an oral decongestant such as pseudoephedrine to decrease inflammation of the eustachian tube. Antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays may help if you have allergies.
When to See Your Doctor
The Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford recommends that you see your doctor if you experience ear pain, your symptoms do not go away within 48 hours or if you suspect the presence of a foreign body in the ear. You may want to consider seeing an ear, nose and throat doctor if your congestion does not improve after several weeks or is severe.
Ear congestion can be prevented by treating the underlying cause of eustachian tube dysfunction, according to FamilyDoctor.org. Be sure that you treat ear infections, the flu, colds, sinus infections and allergies promptly to avoid inflammation and production of mucus in the eustachian tube.