Ear congestion, which is a sensation of a full or stuffy ear, can be uncomfortable and annoying -- but is usually not a sign of something serious. This congestion tends to disappear on its own within minutes or days without treatment. In the meantime, the ear discomfort can be managed with home care including over-the-counter medications. If the congestion persists or symptoms are severe, contact a doctor.
Ear congestion is commonly related to extra fluid in the middle ear, and a consequence of allergies or the common cold. When the Eustachian tube, which extends from the middle ear to the throat, gets inflamed or blocked with mucus or fluid, the eardrum is unable to move properly and sounds get muffled. The presence of fluid can also cause pressure which creates a popping or crackling sensation in the ear. Ear congestion may also be caused by a significant change in pressure from air travel and sudden changes in altitude, such as driving in the mountains, and infrequently this can be severe enough to lead to ear injury. Vigorous nose blowing can also cause the ears to feel blocked or congested.
Plugged or congested ears may be improved by certain exercises that help open up the Eustachian tubes. Swallowing, yawning or chewing gum are common strategies than help. Eating or drinking may also relieve this pressure. The sensation of ear fullness may also be reversed by taking a deep breath, pinching the nostrils closed, then trying to blow air while keeping the mouth closed. If successful, a mild popping sensation and instant relief of congestion can occur.
Home Care for Allergies or Colds
If the ear congestion is related to allergies, follow your doctor's advice on treating and preventing allergy symptoms. Most often, antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays are advised for allergy relief. If the ear discomfort is a symptom of a cold, home measures such as drinking plenty of fluids, using a humidifier or taking a steamy shower or bath may help ease symptoms. Using a decongestant nasal spray may also help reduce swelling and decrease Eustachian tube inflammation.
When to See Your Doctor
If home measures don't help relieve symptoms, or if there is significant or persistent ear pain, ear swelling or fever, see a doctor. Also see a doctor if symptoms do not go away within 48 hours or if you suspect there may be a foreign body in the ear. If the ear congestion occurs in a child, speak to a pediatrician before using any over-the-counter medications.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD