What Causes A Clogged Ear?

July 12, 2024

Clogged ears, also called plugged ears, generally develop due to a blockage in the Eustachian tubes. These tubes connect the inner ear to the brain, and clogs may cause discomfort, balance problems, and decreased hearing. Eustachian tube problems are more common in children; their Eustachian tubes are naturally smaller than those of adults. Clogging sensations in the ears that do not resolve after forty-eight hours should be investigated by a physician. They will perform an ear examination, looking inside the ear with an otoscope. Patients may also need to have a hearing test performed by an audiologist. Treatments for clogged ears vary according to the cause of the patient's symptoms, and doctors may recommend ear drops, antibiotics, or surgical interventions.

Ear Infections

Both bacteria and viruses can cause ear infections, and these usually affect the middle ear. Symptoms of ear infections typically include ear pain, a discharge of fluid or pus from the ear, hearing loss, and a persistent sensation of pressure inside the ear. Primary care doctors are normally able to diagnose an ear infection with a simple physical exam of the ear, and patients who have chronic infections might be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Colds, allergies, sinus issues, and swelling or infection of the adenoids are all possible causes of an ear infection, and individuals who smoke are at a higher risk of these. For bacterial infections, doctors often prescribe antibiotics, and patients will likely need to have a follow-up appointment to check their infection has healed. Ear drops, heating pads, and warm compresses may help soothe the pain associated with these infections. A surgical procedure to insert a tube into the ear might be necessary if a patient has repeated ear infections.

Swimmer's Ear

Swimmer's ear is an outer ear infection especially prevalent among swimmers. Patients with swimmer's ear might experience itching in the ear, and they may also notice a feeling of fullness or increasing pain in the ear. In advanced cases of swimmer's ear, patients might have pain that radiates to their neck or face, and the ear canal could become completely blocked. A fever might develop, and lymph nodes in the neck may swell. While this type of ear infection is common for swimmers, it can also occur in non-swimmers who use earbuds or hearing aids, particularly if they are not properly cleaned. Inserting cotton buds or other items into the ear to clean it also raises the risk of an outer ear infection, and skin irritation from hairspray, jewelry, or hair dye might result in infection too. Patients with swimmer's ear will need to have their ear canal suctioned out so ear drops can effectively treat this condition. Patients may need to apply an acidic solution to the affected ear to eliminate harmful bacteria, and antibiotics, steroids, and pain relievers are frequently needed.


Also known as airplane ear, barotrauma occurs due to changes in air pressure, and it can result in ear discomfort. Acute barotrauma typically develops in response to altitude changes, including those that take place while traveling in a plane or in high-altitude areas. Chronic cases of barotrauma and severe instances of acute barotrauma may cause intense pain in the ears, and patients might experience a feeling of ear pressure similar to being underwater. Nosebleeds, dizziness, damage to the eardrum, and moderate to severe hearing loss have all been reported. The majority of hearing loss experienced with this condition will resolve with treatment. Doctors investigate this condition by taking a health history and performing an ear exam. For this type of exam, the clinician might need to squeeze a small amount of air into the ear to check for fluid buildup or blood behind the eardrum. Acute instances of this condition may resolve with the use of decongestants or antihistamines. Patients who develop a ruptured eardrum as a result of this ailment might need surgery to prevent permanent damage, and surgical interventions are typically recommended for other patients with severe cases too.

Earwax Impaction

Earwax impaction occurs if earwax is pushed too deeply into the ear canal. Impaction is most likely to develop in individuals who use cotton buds and other methods of cleaning their ears at home. Potential signs of earwax impaction include hearing loss, ear pain, ringing in the ears, and a sensation of fullness in the ears. Patients who have an impaction are at an increased risk of an ear infection as well. To remove impactions, patients may need to have a procedure known as ear syringing in their doctor's office. This procedure is quick and normally painless, and it can restore hearing lost due to the impaction. Doctors may also remove earwax using a device known as a curette. Sometimes, doctors might recommend specific ear drops patients can use at home to soften wax, making it easier to remove. However, ear candles are not advised as a treatment option. To prevent impactions of earwax, physicians suggest patients allow their ears to clean themselves; inserting objects into healthy ears to clean them is unnecessary and potentially damaging. Individuals may wish to consider limiting their use of earbuds and earplugs, since these can push wax deeper into the ear canal than it might otherwise go.

Object Stuck In The Ear

Individuals who have a clogged ear may have an object stuck in their ear. This is most common in children, who may place objects in their ears while playing, and it can also occur in adults who use cotton pieces as temporary earplugs. Sometimes, objects used to clean the ears could become lodged in the ear canal. Patients who believe they have an object stuck in their ear should seek urgent treatment. If the patient's primary care doctor does not have any available appointments on the day of the injury, patients should seek assistance at an urgent care center or the emergency room. Doctors will examine the ear to locate the object, and it can then be removed using a special gripping device. There are usually no long-term effects if the object is removed promptly.

The Common Cold

A clogged ear is sometimes caused by a blockage of the Eustachian tube, which is responsible for connecting the middle ear to the throat. When an individual's ear becomes full of mucus and fluid, it flows through the Eustachian tube into the throat, at which point individuals swallow it. There are times when the mucus and fluid might become trapped inside the middle ear and cause clogging. One of the infections that can cause this is the common cold. Patients might experience other symptoms in addition to the ear clogging, including a sore throat, sneezing, coughing, and a runny nose. If individuals do have a blocked Eustachian tube, it's important to unblock it as soon as possible so they don't get an ear infection. There is no cure for the common cold, but there are ways to manage symptoms until it goes away.

Sinus Infection

A sinus infection is another condition that can cause a blockage in the Eustachian tube. Rather than draining the mucus and fluid, these things build up inside the middle of the ear, which can lead to clogging and difficulty hearing. A sinus infection, also referred to as sinusitis, often presents with very similar symptoms to the common cold. This occurs when the tissue that lines the sinuses becomes swollen or inflamed. When individuals are healthy, their sinuses have air inside them. However, when sick, they can become filled with fluid and blocked. This fluid and blockage can also trap germs, which leads to an infection. Sinus infections sometimes occur alongside the common cold. They can also occur as a result of allergic reactions, a deviated septum, or nasal polyps. There are a few different types of sinusitis. The acute version begins with cold-like symptoms and tends to last for between two and four weeks. The subacute version lasts between four and twelve weeks. Chronic sinusitis occurs when the symptoms last for at least twelve weeks.

Acoustic Neuroma

An acoustic neuroma is a type of benign growth that can lead to blockage of the ear. It develops between the inner ear and brain, on the nerve that connects these two parts of the body. The majority of acoustic neuromas are small and slow to grow. They don't necessarily cause problems at first, and many patients aren't even aware that they have them. As the neuroma becomes larger, though, it can increase the pressure against the nerves found in the inner ear, which can lead the ear to become clogged, so affected individuals have trouble hearing and deciphering what's going on around them. It can also lead to permanent hearing loss and tinnitus. About one in every fifty thousand individuals will develop an acoustic neuroma. There aren't many known risk factors regarding the condition. The only solidly known one is a parent has a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis 2. With that said, most of these tumors tend to be spontaneous.

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