It can be incredibly uncomfortable and irritating to feel that your ears are clogged. There are a few different reasons why you may be experiencing this sensation, and the remedy will depend on what is causing the “clog.” Common causes include Eustachian tube dysfunction, excessive cerumen (ear wax), or water in your outer ear. It may simply be a physical sensation of discomfort, while other times, it can interfere with your hearing.
This article will outline different reasons for feeling that your ears are blocked and how to unclog ears at home.
Understanding the Ear and Eustachian Tube
Your ear is comprised of three parts: outer, middle, and inner. Your outer ear is the portion we can see, as well as your ear canal leading to the ear drum. Behind the eardrum is the middle ear, which contains three small bones, known as ossicles, that move together to transmit sound via another membrane to the inner ear. The inner ear contains, not only the hearing organ, the cochlea, but also your vestibular system which is responsible for balance and equilibrium.
What is Eustachian tube dysfunction?
As you can see from the diagram below, the Eustachian tube begins in the middle ear, and it connects to your nasopharynx (your nose and throat). Typically, the Eustachian tube is closed, but it does open periodically when you yawn, swallow, or chew. Its function is to maintain equilibrium of the middle ear space, which is meant to be an air-filled cavity. This regular opening and closing of the Eustachian tube allows the middle ear to remain dry.
If something happens that causes the Eustachian tube to not maintain this regular opening and closing, or if it is blocked, it can result in ear pain or discomfort. Other symptoms can include tinnitus (ringing in the ears), a tickling sensation, clicking or popping, and dizziness or vertigo.
This is commonly reported when flying, particularly during takeoff or landing, and can also occur during scuba diving. If the Eustachian tube does not open and close, the eardrum may become retracted, and you may have a sensation of your ear being blocked. This is why people are often encouraged to drink, swallow, yawn, chew gum, or suck on hard candy during flights to proactively promote movement of the Eustachian tube. Eustachian tube dysfunction can also be caused by allergies, sinus infections, and the common cold.
If Eustachian tube dysfunction persists, the middle ear space can collect fluid, known as “serous otitis media.” The fluid in and of itself is not harmful, though if it sits for a long period of time and/or is there in conjunction with an upper respiratory or sinus infection, the fluid can become infected. This is more common in children than in adults, in part because the Eustachian tube is often at more of a 180-degree angle in children and gradually angles into a descent as we age.
This means that the Eustachian tube is more prone to being blocked simply because gravity is not working in its favor. It also means that any bacteria present in the nasopharynx have an easier pathway into the middle ear, which can lead to the fluid becoming infected. This would require a course of antibiotics to resolve the infection.
Less commonly than it being blocked, the Eustachian tube can remain open for long periods of time. Some of the symptoms of this would be similar, such as the ears feeling full or clogged and hearing your own voice more loudly and with more reverberation. This condition, known as abnormal patency of the Eustachian tube, is annoying but does not cause hearing loss.
Audiologists have a diagnostic tool called tympanometry to assess the movement of the ear drum or tympanic membrane. The audiologist would first inspect the ears via otoscopy to ensure the ear canals are clear and the tympanic membrane is visible. A small probe is placed in the opening of the ear, and a low-frequency tone is introduced as a vibration to move the eardrum. The sensation feels a bit like takeoff or landing in an airplane; the pressure change is noticeable, but it should be brief and not overly uncomfortable.
The resulting tracing, known as a tympanogram, should look like a mountain, showing that the eardrum is able to move back and forth normally. With Eustachian tube dysfunction, results of tympanometry would either show that the eardrum is retracted into the middle ear space (negative pressure), being pushed laterally into the ear canal (positive pressure), or not moving at all as a result of fluid present in the middle ear space.
What else can cause my ears to feel clogged?
If the description above does not sound like what you are experiencing and/or you have ruled out Eustachian tube dysfunction, there could be other reasons your ears feel clogged. The first is a buildup of cerumen, colloquially known as earwax. Cerumen is a normal bodily fluid that serves as a protective mechanism. It lubricates the ear canal and protects against foreign bodies reaching the ear drum.
The amount of cerumen in the ear canals varies from person to person, and the color and consistency can vary as well. It generally works its way out of the ear, though the use of headphones or hearing aids can push the wax into the ears.
The more the ear canals are stimulated, the more wax they produce. In this way, people who have a daily habit of “cleaning” their ears with Q-tips are actually making it worse! In addition to stimulating more cerumen production, Q-tips are more than likely pushing any wax deeper into the ear canals rather than removing it. If you suspect excessive wax in your ears, you can be seen for an otoscopic examination by an audiologist, hearing aid dispenser, or primary care physician.
Another possible cause is water in the outer ear. If you’ve ever spent a few hours in a pool or lake over the summer, you have probably experienced this sensation. Occasionally, the trick of hopping on one foot works, but other times, the water stubbornly stays in place. This is annoying but not harmful, and usually, you would know that it’s water in your ear and not any other cause.
7 Home Remedies for Unclogging Ears
How can I fix Eustachian tube dysfunction?
- The first thing to try is intentional chewing, swallowing, and yawning, which are the actions that typically cause the Eustachian tube to open and close.
- If these are not working, you can try something called the Valsalva maneuver. You will take a deep breath in, plug your nose, close your mouth, and try to gently pop your ears by starting to exhale with your nose and mouth closed off. You do not want to be overly fast or forceful with the exhale breath, but try to introduce some pressure to encourage the Eustachian tube and sinuses to open and close.
- You may also try a nasal spray, nasal saline rinse, or decongestant, particularly if you are experiencing other symptoms of congestion in the sinuses because the system is fully connected.
If you have a cold, allergies, or a sinus infection, nasal sprays and decongestants are probably your best bet, but you may also have to wait for the other symptoms to subside before noticing full relief from the Eustachian tube dysfunction. It can take a week or two for this to occur. If your symptoms persist beyond a couple of weeks, you should consult your provider.
What can I do for earwax?
There are over-the-counter drops called Debrox that use Carbamide peroxide as their active ingredient. The drops are placed in the affected ear, and the solution releases oxygen and allows the wax to soften and loosen. With this, the wax can start to work its way out of the ear naturally.
The drops can be applied twice a day for up to four days, and you should begin to notice relief. You may still need to see a provider to safely remove the wax if it is impacted in the ear canal. Large amounts of impacted wax will require several days of Debrox treatment in order to work through the layers, which can often become hard and occasionally adhere to the ear canal wall if it has been in there for a long time.
How can I remove water?
- Typically, water in the ear will resolve on its own, though sometimes it can be trapped, especially if you have a particularly bendy ear canal! If it is persistent, you can put a bit of rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball in your concha bowl. The alcohol will draw the water out and dry out the ear safely.
Anything else I can try?
- There are certain home remedies that are always safe and can help to alleviate discomfort. Applying a warm compress to the ear can provide comfort from congestion and the associated clogged feeling and headache.
- You can also use steam inhalation or a neti pot to help with congestion. Because the nasopharyngeal system is all connected, alleviating nasal or sinus congestion can often help with the full feeling in your ears.
Precautions and Safety Tips
If your symptoms persist beyond several days and you are experiencing significant discomfort, you should consult a professional. You should also be on the lookout for any co-occurring symptoms such as tinnitus, ear pain, or hearing loss. Any of these, in combination with the clogged sensation, would be a reason to consult a professional, particularly if it is only occurring on one side. The ears generally work as a team, so anything unilateral can be cause for concern.
It is very important to avoid trying to insert anything in your ear to remove a blockage, even if it’s due to remove a bug.. We often say you shouldn’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear! Q-tips are a bad habit, and patients have been known to insert other sharper items in their ears to remove wax. This is very dangerous and can lead to a punctured ear drum and/or laceration in the ear canal, which can become infected.
Other ear-cleaning items, including ear candling, are not recommended. Think of your ears as self-cleaning. The wax is pulling dust and debris from the ear canals out. If you feel strongly about cleaning your ears, you can use a wet soapy washcloth while bathing to clean the outermost portion of your ear canal and your concha bowl.
Prevention Strategies for Future Ear Congestion
If you know you are prone to Eustachian tube dysfunction, you can practice active swallowing or yawning, or even the Valsalva maneuver, during takeoff and landing while flying. If you can avoid flying while you have a cold or sinus infection, that is ideal. However, more often than not, we cannot control our travel plans to this degree. Using a nasal spray, decongestant, or allergy medication before takeoff can also help. There are filtered earplugs designed to slowly equalize the pressure in your ear drum, but you still need to yawn and swallow while using them in order for them to be fully effective.
If you experience regular buildups of cerumen, you can use Debrox on a routine basis. You can also schedule regular ear cleanings with a hearing care provider or primary care physician to avoid impacted wax. If you have been using Q-tips regularly, you should stop. As mentioned, this is likely making the issue worse.
How To Unclog Ears Conclusion
Having the sensation of clogged or blocked ears can be very uncomfortable and irritating. There are a few common causes for this, and usually, you can determine the underlying reason through some troubleshooting and a process of elimination. The remedies described here are all safe to try at home in moderation and are good steps to try prior to consulting a professional. That said, if your symptoms persist for several days and the options described are not resolving the issue, do not hesitate to consult an audiologist or your primary care provider.
Erin Edwards received her Doctor of Audiology degree from Towson University in 2015 and her Ph.D. in Education and Leadership from Pacific University in 2022. She has worked with patients of all ages in a variety of settings and has a specific interest in cochlear implants, the relationship of hearing loss and dementia, and interdisciplinary healthcare.