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Muffled hearing: what causes it and how to treat it

If you’re experiencing muffled hearing, don’t panic. Discover common causes and when to see a doctor.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Ruth Reisman

Written by

Chal Emery


May 13, 2024

A man in pain holding his ear. A man in pain holding his ear.

The 3 key takeaways

  • Muffled hearing often isn’t serious — It’s relatively common to experience a muffled ear after you get off an airplane or when you have a cold.
  • If symptoms persist, go see a doctor — While muffled hearing usually resolves on its own, it’s best to see a doctor if it lasts more than a day or two.
  • There are a few serious causes associated with muffled hearing — If you’re struggling with multiple symptoms or find that you can’t stop worrying, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and get checked out.

Muffled hearing is a frightening thing to experience at any age, and yes, it may be cause for a quick trip to the doctor’s office. However, don’t panic just yet.

Muffled hearing, or a “muffled ear” often occurs when sound has trouble entering the outer, middle, or inner ear as efficiently as normal. Temporary muffling in the ear canal is normally a result of a blockage such as ear wax or other fluid buildup, both of which can be resolved through routine removal procedures.

However, permanent muffling can be a bit more difficult to identify. Let’s explore the various causes, symptoms, and treatments for muffled hearing.

What is a muffled ear?

A muffled ear is a fairly common condition that is almost always aggravating—and occasionally concerning. When your ear is muffled, you will likely experience a muted or “plugged” sensation in one or both of your ears. Since this is likely due to earwax impaction or fluid build-up, sound has a difficult time passing into the inner ear, making it difficult to hear the world around you.

For the most part, this condition isn’t serious and will usually resolve on its own. However, it’s always best to err on the side of caution when it comes to your health.

Symptoms of a muffled ear

It may be difficult to discern whether you have a muffled ear or not. In fact, other symptoms may show up before you notice that your hearing has been affected. Keep a look out for common symptoms of sinus infections, and other symptoms such as:

  • Unclear sounds. The world may seem quieter, or people may sound like they’re mumbling when they’re actually speaking at a normal volume.
  • Dizziness. If there’s fluid built up inside your ear, it can make you dizzy. This is because the organ of balance, the vestibular system, is found in the inner ear.
  • Headaches. Sometimes, muffled ears can accompany sinus infections or clogged sinuses, which can lead to headaches and discomfort.
  • Pain. If you feel an ache in your ear or a pulsing pain accompanied with the muffled sound, it could be a sign of an ear infection.
  • Ringing in the ears. Occasionally, when one ear is muffled, the other one may ring, or the muffled ear may ring if there’s a lot of pressure in the ear.

Muffled hearing causes and their remedies

Muffled hearing is normally a consequence of fluid buildup within the inner ear, bacterial or viral infections, or certain age-related afflictions that can cause the ear to struggle receiving sounds. However, there are many remedies to these issues that you can use to ease your concern.

These treatments range from resolving the most minor conditions to more serious ones, and can offer you some respite from the worry that a muffled ear can cause.

Earwax buildup and impaction

Earwax is a very important part of keeping the inner and outer ear clean, acting as a preventive for debris and dirt entering the ear and causing unnecessary blockage. However, this wax can, at times, become compacted inside the ear canal, stunting the travel of soundwaves into the ear and causing muffling.

Severe buildup of earwax can result in ear muffling, and requires immediate medical attention to extract it. Specific symptoms of earwax impaction include ear ringing, pressure within the ear, and earaches.

Middle ear infection

Most of the blockage within the middle ear is a consequence of bacterial or viral infections. Many of these infections come from excessive fluid buildup in what is known as the eustachian tube.

Both swelling and inflammation within this tube can contribute to severe fluid buildup and lead to the muffling that you may be experiencing on a daily basis. These kinds of infections can sometimes cure themselves, but some can lead to long lasting impairment if gone untreated.

Be mindful of instances of ear pain or drainage, as these are often signs of middle ear infection.

Common illnesses and allergies

Sinus infections are also a common cause of muted hearing. This sort of infection is caused by cavities within the nasal passage that then become inflamed or swollen. These infections result in a fair amount of drainage that then lead to the muffling and congestion you may be experiencing.

The common cold is also a prevalent cause of muffled hearing, clogging the Eustachian tube that connects the ear with the nasal cavity. These kinds of cloggings normally resolve themselves, however, as clogging and muffling within the ear commonly lessen as the cold itself does.

Airplane ear

Airplane ear is highly common for individuals who tend to travel a fair amount, whether it be for business or leisure. Changes in air pressure can affect the travel of soundwaves through the ear canal, explaining symptoms of ringing or temporary hearing loss.

If you happen to travel quite a bit then consider this a possible cause for your muffled hearing, as changes in air pressure within your environment are normally to blame. Don’t fret, this condition appears quite frequently, and like the common cold, usually resolves itself.

Ear blockage

This can happen for a number of reasons. Earwax can block the ear canal, creating a muffled sound.

Sometimes, an insect may fly into your ear, which can create a blockage. Mucus and other types of fluid may also stop up the ear and make it difficult to hear.

Certain medications

There are over 200 medications that can cause muffled hearing. Some of the most common include certain antibiotics, chemotherapy medications, and high doses of aspirin. Ask your doctor about potential side effects before starting a medication.

More serious causes of muffled hearing

While a muffled ear is often no cause for concern, there could be more serious reasons for that plugged sensation you’re experiencing. If your muffled hearing persists, you should schedule an appointment with an audiologist or a medical practitioner, as it could be a sign of:

  • Presbycusis. A type of hearing loss that occurs gradually as we age. This is often referred to as “age-related hearing loss” as well.
  • Noise damage. If you often listen to music that’s too loud, or if you work in a loud factory, you may be suffering from noise-induced hearing loss. This can create a muffled sound in the ear, and it might indicate that you should get your hearing checked.
  • Tinnitus. Tinnitus is a ringing in the ears. This doesn’t always signify hearing loss, but if it’s persistent, you may want to see a hearing specialist.
  • Eardrum perforation. While this often seals itself off, a perforated eardrum can be both painful and cause muffled or unclear sound in the ear.
  • Tumor. Tumors such as an acoustic neuroma can create a “plugged” sensation in the ear, as this tumor blocks blood supply to the cochlear nerve and inner ear.
  • Meniere’s disease. A disorder caused by fluid backup in the ear, Meniere’s disease can create vertigo, vomiting, loss of hearing, headache, loss of balance, and sweating.
  • Brain injury or head trauma. A blow to the head or a serious concussion can negatively impact your hearing. If you experience muffled hearing in the wake of head trauma, see a doctor right away.

Treatment options for muffled hearing

Most muffled hearing cases resolve on their own. However, if you’re struggling to complete everyday activities and tasks, there are several treatments that can help you. Once you identify the cause of your muffled ear, try:

  • Earwax removal. Earwax drops and a rubber-bulb syringe can help you remove earwax on your own. You can also go to your doctor’s office or local clinic, where they will use a curette to remove the wax from your ear.
  • Antibiotics. If you are suffering from an ear infection, antibiotics are the cure. Be sure to speak with your doctor about other medications you are taking before starting an antibiotic.
  • Decongestants. If your muffled ear is the result of a sinus infection or a cold, decongestants such as Sudafed or Tylenol Cold can help relieve the pressure in your head, which may equalize the pressure in your ears. Speak to your doctor before starting a decongestant, especially if the medication is new to you.
  • Surgery. While it is rare, sometimes a muffled ear may require surgery in order to increase access to the inner ear. Speak to your doctor about your options.
  • Hearing aids. If your muffled ear or muffled hearing is due to hearing loss, then an audiologist will be able to diagnose your type and range of hearing loss, then prescribe a hearing aid to help you hear more clearly. If your hearing loss is mild to moderate, you may be able to purchase over-the-counter hearing aids. See our brand reviews to learn more.

Any sudden change in hearing is considered an “ear emergency.” However, while a muffled ear definitely requires attention, it shouldn’t be a cause for serious alarm, since most causes are benign or treatable.

If you find you’ve been struggling for several days, call your healthcare provider and see what treatment options are available. If you already struggle with hearing loss and experience muffling in your ear, be sure to reach out to your audiologist.

Frequently asked questions

How do you get rid of a muffled ear?

If your ear is slightly muffled, you can try swallowing, yawning, or chewing gum. If this happens on airplanes, having a pack of gum with you is a good rule of thumb! However, if this has persisted for a while or if you can feel fluid or earwax in your ear, it might be best to visit a doctor, as you may need to get earwax removed or need an antibiotic.

Will a muffled ear go away on its own?

Usually, a muffled ear resolves itself, either in a few hours or in a few days. However, if you have an ear infection or if you’ve somehow damaged your ear, the symptoms will likely not resolve. This is when you need to see a doctor.

Why is one ear blocked?

One blocked ear is a sign that there’s unequalized pressure between your ears. This is relatively mild and will usually resolve on its own, but if the blocked ear is causing you pain, a specialist should be able to provide guidance on what to do next.

Will ear drops help my clogged ears?

There are certain ear drops that may help alleviate the pressure from muffled ears or break up the ear wax buildup. Most healthcare providers will recommend drops containing carbamide peroxide, which can help break up or soften the ear wax and help it slide out.