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6 reasons why your ear feels clogged

Common reasons your ear feels blocked up are related to your health and environment and often have an easy fix.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Jessica Hinson

Writtenm by

Dr. Jessica Hinson

Updated:

May 10, 2024

A boy touching his ear. A boy touching his ear.

The 3 key takeaways

  • Clogged ears are common and usually unserious — There are plenty of reasons why your ears may feel clogged occasionally, including illness, change in elevation, and earwax buildup.
  • Clogged ears are a symptom of ear infections, which are more common in children — Narrow and horizontal eustachian tubes, along with weak immune systems are factors that contribute to prevalent ear infections in young children.
  • If symptoms persist, schedule an appointment with your doctor — Usually clogged ears resolve naturally, but see your doctor if symptoms keep up for five days.

6 common causes of a clogged ear

1. Eustachian tube blockage

Causes. The eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the nasal-sinus cavity and drains fluid from the ear. Infections or illnesses including the common cold or flu can cause this passageway to become blocked or constricted, leading to eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD). Additionally, nasal allergies and allergens including pollution and cigarette smoke can cause ETD, as they cause the nasal passageway to become inflamed.

Symptoms. You may experience symptoms including coughing, sneezing, a runny nose, and pain and pressure in the ear.

Treatment. Doctors recommend decongestants to reduce inflammation in the lining of the nose, opening up the airway and drainage through the Eustachian tube. Nasal spray is a popular choice for people who struggle with airborne allergens such as dust and pollen.

Another option is self-inflation of the ear, which forces air into the eustachian tube and may result in a ‘pop’ of the ear. Patients can do this by holding their nose and mouth shut while trying to exhale or by blowing up a balloon.

2. High altitude or changes in atmospheric pressure

Causes. Changes in elevation and weather can affect ear pressure, especially the eustachian tube, which regulates pressure in the middle ear. Some people experience blocked ears during events such as driving up or down a mountain, during airplane takeoff and landing, or scuba diving. This blockage is usually temporary and resolves itself as the air pressure in the ear is regulated.

Symptoms. There are often no accompanying symptoms with blocked ears due to atmospheric pressure, however, if you experience dizziness, lightheadedness, or nausea, alongside the blocked ears you may be experiencing altitude sickness.

Treatment. Simple actions such as swallowing, chewing, or yawning can help regulate the pressure in the middle ear during elevation changes and alleviate any sensations of blocked ears.

3. Ear infection

Causes. An ear infection occurs when a virus or bacteria infects the middle ear. Infection makes the eustachian tube swollen and clogged, not allowing proper drainage. Children are more likely to get ear infections than adults for many reasons, one of which is that their eustachian tubes are narrower and more likely to clog.

Symptoms. Symptoms common to ear infections include pain in the ear, fever, loss of energy, irritated or irregular skin around the ear, and discharge coming out of the ear.

Treatment. Minor ear infections can resolve on their own, but the patient should rest and drink plenty of fluids to assist in the process. If symptoms are still present after two to three days, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to fight the infection.

4. Earwax buildup

Causes. Everyone has earwax, but small ear canals or excess hair in the ear can lead to more wax buildup. Often, using a cotton swab to clean out earwax will push the wax further in and cause a blocked ear.

Symptoms. Hearing loss, muffled hearing, or tinnitus are all symptoms of excessive earwax.

Treatment. Usually, the wax will fall out on its own and no intervention is needed. However, if the wax has not cleared in five days you may need to schedule a doctor’s appointment. Your doctor may flush out the wax by performing ear irrigation, or use suction to draw the wax out. They may even recommend at-home treatments such as ear drops to help soften the wax and prevent future blockage.

5. Noise damage

Causes. A sudden blast of high-decibel sound, like instruments at your favorite concert, can cause temporary or even permanent hearing loss. This is known as noise-induced hearing loss and the CDC estimates that 17% of adults have permanent hearing damage due to excessive noise. The prevalence of headphones is one reason why noise damage is so prevalent today.

Symptoms. Along with the sensation of clogged ears, many people experience tinnitus or ringing in the ear due to noise damage.

Treatment. If symptoms don’t resolve within two days, you should seek treatment from your doctor who may refer you to an audiologist. These healthcare professionals are well-versed in how hearing works and may recommend a hearing aid to help restore your hearing. Wearing hearing protective devices during exposure to loud sounds is critical in protecting your hearing abilities.

6. Cholesteatoma

Causes. A noncancerous growth of skin cells in the middle ear, cholesteatomas can be caused by multiple ear infections or a damaged eustachian tube. In rare cases, cholesteatomas appear at birth and can cause hearing loss.

Symptoms. Because cholesteatomas can grow in size, symptoms may start mild and become more serious as the cyst grows. Symptoms include pain in the ear, tinnitus, and imbalance or vertigo.

Treatment. A doctor must diagnose cholesteatomas. Often, the most effective treatment is to have the growth surgically removed.

How to treat a clogged ear

We know a clogged ear is uncomfortable and you probably want to clear it immediately. Usually, clogged ears are a symptom of illness and will resolve on their own.

Decongestants help to reduce swelling in the eustachian tube and clear your passageways. To help reduce the likelihood of a clogged ear, keep your ears clean of wax and debris.

When to see a doctor if your ear feels clogged

If your clogged ears persist after five days and at-home treatments are not working, you should see your doctor. However, if you experience sudden hearing loss, especially in one ear, you should receive a medical evaluation within 36 hours. While the hearing loss may be due to wax, there is also a risk of sudden sensorineural loss, which has the best chance of being reversed within 36 hours from onset.

It’s important to be in tune with your body, specifically your hearing health. Keep at-home treatments on hand for allergy flare-ups and when traveling. You can take preventative measures to keep your hearing healthy by wearing headphones at concerts or events with loud sound, and by using ear drops if you’re prone to wax buildup.

Frequently asked questions

How do you get rid of a blocked ear feeling? 

A good first step is to try the Valsalva method to ‘pop’ your ears, which forces air through the eustachian tube. To do this, close your mouth, plug your nose, and gently try to blow your nose. Other at-home remedies include ear drops to soften wax and a decongestant if your symptoms are allergy-related.

Why does only one ear feel blocked? 

Our eustachian tubes can respond differently to infection or pressure changes, which is why one ear may feel blocked while the other feels normal.

 

Will a clogged ear go away by itself? 

Oftentimes, yes. Common reasons for blocked ears such as illness, infection, or swimmers’ ears usually resolve without medical intervention.

 

What are the common causes of a clogged ear? 

People usually experience clogged ears when they have a common cold or flu, which causes the eustachian tube in the middle ear to swell. Other common causes include earwax buildup, an ear infection, or sudden elevation change.

Are there home remedies for a clogged ear? 

Over-the-counter ear drops help soften and break down wax buildup in the ear. Decongestants can reduce swelling in the Eustachian tube for ears clogged from illness or allergies.

Can frequent flying cause a clogged ear? 

Yes, many people experience clogged ears during takeoff and landing when the elevation change is most dramatic. Chewing gum can help keep the eustachian tube open which regulates the pressure in the middle ear.

How do I know if my clogged ear is due to excess earwax?

If your ear feels ‘full’ and you are experiencing symptoms including hearing loss or pain in the ear you may have excess wax buildup.