Join the Community
Plugged ears can be the result of many things, including an excessive amount of built-up earwax, a cold or sinus infection, or even allergies. A cold, infection, or allergies can make a person feel as if his or her ears are plugged even if they actually are not. Sometimes, particularly when a person regularly sticks something in his or her ear, such as cotton swabs and earplugs, the wax builds up enough to plug the ears. In some cases, the clogged ears eventually cure themselves. Other cases may require a doctor to clean the ears or prescribe a treatment.
The common cold and allergies can cause plugged ears, thereby muffling sounds and sometimes causing pain. While an ear infection is possible, sometimes it is only the symptom of a cold. This problem is normally temporary and goes away on its own within hours to a couple weeks. A nasal spray or oral decongestants can usually provide temporary relief, though it is generally recommended to see a doctor if the clog seems severe or does not go away within a few weeks.
Doctors generally agree that sticking cotton swabs or anything else in the ear is a bad idea. Earwax protects the inner ear, and when it is removed, the ear becomes itchy. This itchy feeling tends to make people believe their ears need more cleaning, and the cycle continues. Some people naturally produce too much wax, in which case a regular cleaning by a doctor or a home remedy approved by a doctor is probably necessary. Otherwise, the wax will continue to build up until sounds are muffled or the person is near or completely deaf in the affected ear.
An ear infection can also cause plugged ears, muffled sounds, and fluid coming from the ears. In young children, an ear infection should probably be suspected if the child pulls at his or her ears or does not seem to hear well. Many ear infections go away on their own, but seeing a doctor is usually advisable, especially if there is pain or a history of ear infections.
Occasionally, people get plugged ears and a doctor cannot correctly diagnose the cause. Sometimes the actual cause eludes the person for years, meanwhile leaving him or her with limited hearing. In this case, persistence in getting a correct diagnosis and treatments that relieve the block at least a little are usually recommended.
4 Common Causes of Plugged Ears
John Carew, MD, is board-certified in otolaryngology and is an adjunct assistant professor at New York University Medical Center.
Plugged ears can be caused by a few different things, including fluid in the ear, changes in atmospheric pressure, excessive ear wax, or objects obstructing your eardrum. Each cause has a different treatment.
When you’re not sure what’s causing your discomfort, it’s worth seeking a professional opinion. Doing so can help you quickly address the issue and avoid potential complications.
Fluid in the Ear
Plugged ears can be a result of trapped fluid in the auditory tube, also known as the eustachian tube. The auditory tube normally carries unwanted debris—including fluid and mucus from the ears—to the back of the throat where it is swallowed, but sometimes it can become plugged and fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear.
Conditions that can cause the auditory tube to become blocked can include enlarged structures such as tonsils, adenoids, and turbinates, or severe congestion. It’s common to have plugged ears for a while after you’ve had a severe cold and it can also be caused by allergies.
Fluid in the ear is more likely to be the cause of plugged ears in children because their auditory tube is smaller in diameter and naturally more horizontal than an adult’s auditory tube.
Even though your ears may feel plugged, it is common to have little or no symptoms of fluid in the ear. It can, however, result in hearing loss. If left undiagnosed in small children, this can lead to speech delays. In severe cases, there can be ear pain or pressure, dizziness or balance loss (vertigo), and gross motor delays (in young children).
If you do not have bothersome symptoms, or if the patient is a child who is not at risk for developmental delays, your doctor may choose to monitor the fluid at three-month to six-month intervals to see if it goes away on its own.
The best treatment for chronically plugged ears is inserting ear tubes (ventilation tubes) via a myringotomy procedure.
Myringotomy and tympanostomy tube placement is a common procedure done under anesthesia in which a tiny hole is made in the eardrum and synthetic tubes are placed in the auditory tube to hold it open. This tube allows the fluid to drain out of it. The hole in the eardrum heals on its own in a few days and the synthetic tubes fall out without intervention about a year later.
Plugged ears can be caused by rapid changes in ambient pressure and its effects on the auditory tube, known as barotrauma. Along with the eardrum, the auditory tube helps to equalize the pressure between the middle ear and the outer ear.
This is why your ears can feel plugged when you are driving up a steep mountain or taking off in an airplane. This can also occur while scuba diving, and, if precautions are not taken, can lead to severe ear injuries, such as a ruptured eardrum.
The best way to prevent barotrauma and to help plugged ears from altitude changes is to swallow, chew, or yawn frequently. This opens up your normally collapsed auditory tube, allowing outside air to enter the ear.
You may also try an over-the-counter decongestant if you typically have trouble clearing your ears with altitude changes; take it an hour before your flight starts descending. If you have allergies, use your allergy medication at the start of the flight.
If you experience pain, fluid drainage, or significant hearing loss, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.
Excessive Ear Wax
Occasionally, plugged ears can be caused by too much ear wax. This is not a common problem since the ears normally have their own built-in cleaning system, but for unknown reasons, a certain percentage of the population may overproduce ear wax.
Don’t try to remove excessive ear wax yourself; let your doctor remove it with special equipment to avoid rupturing your eardrum or pushing the wax even further into your ear. The FDA has warned against using ear candles, as well.
Your doctor may use one of these methods to remove excessive ear wax:
- Irrigate the ear with water
- Scoop it out with a special tool called a curette or cerumen spoon
- Use ear drops designed to dissolve ear wax.
It is not uncommon for young children to place things in their ears. This may happen out of curiosity or a dare from a friend, similar to foreign nasal obstructions.
Depending on their age, the only clue you may have is the constant rubbing of their ear and grimacing. With foreign objects, your child will not have a fever or any cold symptoms, unless the obstruction is in long enough to cause an infection.
You can use a flashlight to take a look, but you shouldn’t remove a foreign object yourself. Never stick anything sharp inside of the ear in an attempt to remove a foreign object.
The best thing to do is to take a trip to the pediatrician’s office where specialized equipment can help the doctor see and remove the object safely.
If you notice any fluid draining from the ear or a foul odor, your child needs to see a physician immediately.
A Word from Verywell
Having your ears feel plugged all the time can be very disconcerting. Ensuring that you receive the appropriate treatment for any of the causes listed above will help prevent any long-term complications, such as developmental delay or hearing loss. If you ever hear a popping sound followed by pain, see fluid draining from the ear, or have sudden changes in your hearing or balance, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.
Join the Community
Stuffy ears are commonly caused by congestion associated with colds and allergies. Blockages or swelling within the tubes of the inner ear can also cause ears to feel stopped up and congested. In some cases, stuffy ears can be caused by wax buildup within the ear canal. Most of the time ear congestion is temporary and not considered a serious health risk.
In some cases, stuffy ears can be the result of an inner ear infection. This type of infection is very common in young children, and can sometimes cause high fever and severe earache. Treatment for inner ear infection usually involves a course of antibiotics, such as penicillin, and ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain and fever reduction.
Ear infections are typically located within the eustachian tubes. These tubes are located behind the eardrum in an area of the ear canal called the middle ear. The eustachian tubes are lined with mucus, and when people have colds or congestion, the tubes tend to produce more mucus and the lining of the tubes may become swollen and irritated. If the tubes swell too much, fluid inside the ear becomes trapped, and this can cause bacterial buildup. This buildup often results in bacterial infection within the ear canal.
Even without the presence of infection, inflammation inside the ear can cause stuffy ears and ear pain. Other causes of inflammation could include a foreign object lodged inside the ear canal or excessive deposits of ear wax. For people who believe they may have an object lodged within the ear, they should probably not attempt to remove it on their own, but should seek the assistance of a physician.
Frequent cleaning of the ears may help reduce the risk of stuffy ears resulting from excessive ear wax. In addition, ear drops may help dissolve ear wax that has built up deep within the ear. These drops are usually available without prescription at most pharmacies.
Another condition, sometimes referred to as “swimmer’s ear,” often causes stuffy ears, and is usually the result of water becoming trapped inside the ear canal. Symptoms of swimmer’s ear include itchy and congested inner ear, and in some cases, hearing may be somewhat impaired. If drainage can be accomplished, sometimes swimmer’s ear will clear up without antibiotics. To induce drainage, some people use bulb syringes to draw out the fluid. Bulb syringes are available at most pharmacies.
Last Updated: March 16, 2021 References
This article was co-authored by Payam Daneshrad, MD. Dr. Payam Daneshrad is a board certified Otolaryngologist, a board eligible Facial Plastic Surgeon, and the Owner and Director of DaneshradClinic in Los Angeles, California. With over 19 years of experience, Dr. Daneshrad specializes in adult and pediatric Otolaryngology-head and neck surgery, packing-less nasal surgery, minimally invasive sinus surgery, and snoring treatment. He also uses the newest surgical ENT techniques for tonsillectomy, adenoidectomy, thyroidectomy, and parathyroidectomy. Dr. Daneshrad graduated with a BS and the highest honors from the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his Doctor of Medicine (MD) from Tulane University School of Medicine, where he was accepted into the AOA, the medical honor’s society, and the Tulane University School of Public Health. Dr. Daneshrad received his medical training from the University of Southern California, where he currently serves as an Associate Clinical Professor. Dr. Daneshrad is the Otolaryngologist and Facial Plastic Surgeon for the Los Angeles Sparks and the athletic teams of Loyola Marymount University.
There are 17 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.
This article has been viewed 3,451 times.
Common colds are super annoying, and the stuffy nose and clogged sinuses are an added aggravation. If you are getting over a cold, your ears may still feel stuffed up or full. To unclog your ears, try swallowing and yawning deeply, inhaling steam, taking a hot shower, or chewing gum to get rid of mucus buildup in your ears. Or, use olive oil or a warm washcloth to warm up earwax that is clogging your ears. If these at-home remedies don’t work, visit your doctor for a nasal spray or an antibiotic.
Q: My ears feel “blocked” because of a head cold? What can I do? – Lisa P.
A: Sinus congestion from a head cold or allergies can temporarily make the ears feel clogged. Here are a few suggestions for what you can do to relieve this:
- Take medication to clear ear blockage after a cold. You don’t need to continue taking cold medication after cold symptoms improve. Purchase a decongestant and begin taking this drug to help break up mucus and unblock the ears. Use as directed.
- Run a humidifier to produce moisture to help break up congestion. Blocked ears may respond to extra moisture in the air. Use a humidifier or sit in the bathroom while the shower runs to reduce ear congestion.
- Take in plenty of liquids to hydrate your body. Fluids are also useful because they help thin mucus. Drink plenty of water, juices and teas to get rid of remnants of mucus after a head cold.
- Move the jaw muscles to help “pop” congested ears. Popping the ears is a quick way to clear blockage. Chew gum or open and close your mouth several times to work the jaw muscles and unblock ears. Another tactic to pop the ears involves plugging the nose and gently blowing to help balance pressure in the ears.
Visit the BlackDoctor.org Sinus Problems center for more articles.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ‘Ask Dr. Renee’. Follow me on Twitter @AskDrRenee and on my website.
Articles On Sinusitis (Sinus Infection)
- What Is Sinusitis?
- Acute vs. Chronic Sinusitis
- Sinusitis Headaches
- Sinusitis and a Cold
- Stuffy Ears & Sinusitis
The Sinus-Ear Connection
Your sinuses and ears are connected inside your head. So sinus congestion and stuffiness can affect the pressure in your ears. Treating the congestion may help.Clogged sinuses can mean more than a stuffy nose. You can also have pain, dizziness, and that muffled-ear sensation, like youвЂ™re in a descending plane.
You can take steps to relieve your ears once you know what the problem is, though.
Stuffiness, Ear Discomfort, and Sinus Pain
Get moisture. Use a nasal saline spray several times a day, or hold a warm, moist washcloth to your face. This can ease the pressure and pain.
Humidifiers will also help keep your sinuses from drying out. Or you can sit in the bathroom with a hot shower running for 15 minutes to curb pain.
Check the medicine cabinet. Try an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen, to ease an earacheВ orВ pain from sinus pressure.
Try a decongestant. Over-the-counter tablets or nasal sprays can ease sinus blockage which in turnВ can relieve clogged ears. But don’t use nasal decongestant sprays for more than 3 days, or you will reboundвЂ¦ meaning the more you use it the more you need it because youвЂ™re congested.
Avoid extreme temperatures. They can make sinus-related ear problems worse. If your ears bother you, it isnвЂ™t the time to go jogging on a hot day or build a snow fort with the kids.
Keep your head up. If you bend forward with your head down, it can make the pressure worse. YouвЂ™ll want to skip yoga class until the sinus problem is over.
Blow your nose gently. Block one nostril while you blow through the other.
Drink plenty of fluids. Down lots of water in the evening. When you stay hydrated, it keeps nasal mucus thin. That helps it drain and means less nighttime stuffiness.
A build-up of pressure in the inner ear, including pressure caused by sinus problems, can sometimes make you feel dizzy.
No fast movements. DonвЂ™t stand up too quickly or shake your head fast.
Avoid caffeine, salt, alcohol, and tobacco products. These can affect your circulation, and minor changes in blood flow can affect your ears.
The pressure changes you feel on an airplane can be uncomfortable. If you already have sinus pain or pressure, flying can be tough.
If you can, avoid air travel when youвЂ™re having sinus problems, especially if they affect your ears.
If you must fly, donвЂ™t wait for the pain to hit to try to relieve pressure. Before you get on the plane, try a nasal spray or oral decongestant. Pills and capsules can take a while to get into your system and begin working. So take them at least 30 minutes to an hour before takeoff.
Sinus-related ear problems can cause problems in the water, too. Scuba divers should avoid diving when their problems flare up. Stuffy sinuses can make it hard or impossible to equalize ear pressure. That puts you at risk for an injury.
When to See a Doctor
Usually, ear problems related to a sinus issue arenвЂ™t severe and donвЂ™t last long. Most of the time, they go away on their own. See your doctor if:
- You have a fever.
- You have head, face, or ear pain, or swelling that doesnвЂ™t get better with non-prescription medication.
- Your symptoms last for more than a week or keep coming back.
American Academy of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery: вЂњSinusitis;вЂќ вЂњDizziness and Motion Sickness;вЂќ and вЂњSinus Pain: Can Over-the-Counter Medications Help?вЂќ
Divers Alert Network: вЂњEars and Sinuses — Instructions for Equalizing Ears and Sinuses.вЂќ
Harvard Medical School, WomenвЂ™s Health Watch: вЂњWhat to Do About Sinusitis.вЂќ
Tampa Ear, Nose, and Throat Associates: вЂњSinusitis.вЂќ
The average adult experiences 2-3 colds per year, making this particular malady exceptionally common. But just because they’re frequency doesn’t mean that colds can’t make you miserable. Fevers, runny noses, sneezing, coughing–cold symptoms come in a myriad of varieties (you probably have your least favorite).
But one cold symptom that doesn’t get much attention has to do with your ears. As you become congested, your ears could grow blocked, and that can interfere with your hearing and your comfort. If your ears are blocked because of a cold, there are a few things you can try to help relieve your symptoms. This is, of course, assuming there are no signs of an ear infection. (If you have signs of infection like pain, pressure, a fever or fluid coming out of the ear, see a doctor as soon as possible.)
1. Blow Your Nose (But Do It Gently)
It’s not like your ears are producing all of the excess fluid that causes blockages. Instead, it’s your nose and sinuses that are creating everything (you can curse and admire their productivity at the same time). But once your nasal passages run out of room, all excess mucus and fluid starts to go down your eustachian tubes–and your ears end up blocked. The (partial) solution may be to blow your nose.
This gets fluid out of your sinuses and, well, makes room. The more vacancy you produce in your sinuses and your nose, the less fluid will overflow to your ears. But there’s no need to force the issue and violently blow your nose. Be gentle and let your body do its thing.
2. Use a Humidifier
It’s not just excess fluid that can cause buildup and congestion: it’s inflammation, too. When your eustachian tubes become inflamed, there’s simply less room for any fluid to go. Dry air can cause a significant amount of irritation to your nasal passages–and with that irritation is often a source of inflammation. This can quickly lead to blocked ears (and the accompanying discomfort).
Keeping a humidifier going can keep your air from getting too dry (locally, anyway). This can help your nasal passages feel better and limit inflammation.
3. Drink Plenty of Water
A runny nose won’t often be your primary problem when it comes to clogged ears. It’s a stuffy nose you need to watch out for. Your ears become blocked when fluid (excess or otherwise) isn’t able to drain as it’s supposed to. Drinking plenty of water may help your ears feel better when you have a cold.
When you stay hydrated, your nasal mucus does too. Drinking lots of water can help you thin out that nasal mucus, which in turn becomes easier for your body to drain. And the better your sinuses drain, the less congested your ears will feel.
4. Take a Nasal Decongestant
Sometimes staying hydrated isn’t enough (a cold can be amazing that way). When your stuffiness is persistent, it might be useful to consider taking an over-the-counter nasal decongestant.
Such decongestants can help fluids drain–and, as a result, help keep your eustachian tubes and ears clear. However, most such decongestants come with cautions against taking them for more than three days in a row (if you feel compelled to do so, you should talk to your doctor).
You may also want to stay away from decongestants if your nose is already quite runny.
5. Use a Nasal Spray
Using a nasal spray or nasal irrigation method can sometimes help get your mucus drainage system moving again, alleviating pressure on your ears. The effectiveness of these sprays will depend on the nature of your cold and your own comfort level with the methods. Many nasal sprays are, again, designed as decongestants, so their primary purpose is to get fluids running back the way they’re supposed to.
Cold Protection for Your Ears
Every cold (known medically as a rhinovirus) is going to be slightly different. So there’s a lot of “listening to your body” involved in the process of unblocking your ears. The approach you take will likely depend on what’s blocking your ears in the first place.
But it’s important to look at the system holistically. Your ears, sinuses, nose, and throat are all connected. A cold that’s particularly rough on your sinuses, for example, will likely have an impact on your ears, too. When in doubt, seek out professional medical advice and go see your specialist!
And if your ears are blocked by a cold, try one of the five solutions listed above. Your nose might keep running, but at least your ears will feel relieved.
You sneezed. You blew your nose. You endured a very scratchy throat. And… eventually… you were able to recover from the worst cold you’ve had all year. Now you’re back to work and having dinner with friends.
But your ears are still blocked. Which is odd, because no other symptoms remain. It’s a disconcerting feeling, and it’s impacting your ability to hear (to say nothing of hindering your social life). What would cause your ears to remain blocked after a cold, you wonder.
A cold virus–in scientific jargon referred to as a “rhinovirus”–can often incite congestion and blockages throughout your nasal passages, sinuses, and ears. The virus, in the process, can sometimes cause, reveal, or exacerbate other conditions that leave your ears full of fluid. And that can leave you feeling like your ears are clogged, stuffy and uncomfortable. But there are some possible solutions.
Managing Fluid Overflow
When you have a cold, your ears aren’t usually the primary source of your symptoms. That’s left to your throat, your nose, your sinuses–all that. But your ears do have to deal with the overflow. The mucus and fluid that builds up during your illness will usually outstrip your body’s ability to manage it; symptom-wise, that translates into sniffles or congestion (or some devious combination of both).
Excess fluid and mucus are often diverted to your ears–specifically to your middle ear and eustachian tubes (the eustachian tubes are the canals that connect your ears to your throat).
When you’re congested, that fluid and mucus can get stuck (rather than properly draining) and start filling up your ear canal. (Other cold symptoms, such as inflammation, can exacerbate the situation.) Clogged ears can create intense discomfort and impair your ability to hear properly.
Why Are My Ears Still Blocked?
So if a cold is the source of all this havoc, you would expect your ears to return to normal once your immune system finishes its good work. And that is indeed what usually happens. But not always. In some cases, you might find your ears remain frustratingly clogged. Here’s what might be happening:
- It could just need a little more time to drain. Sometimes your head needs another day to drain the fluid.
- It could be inflammation: If your recently conquered cold is still causing residual inflammation, your ear might have a difficult time draining. Inflammation can narrow the eustachian tubes, causing fluid to drain more slowly (and limiting your ability to hear in the process).
- You might have an ear infection: It’s possible that prolonged exposure to the excess fluid backed up in your ears has caused an infection. Most ear infections will cause further fluid buildup and inflammation. Unfortunately, that inflammation may make it difficult for your body to drain any of that fluid. (One symptom exacerbates the next.) Residual fluid from your cold will only add to your discomfort. Thankfully, many ear infections can be treated with medication.
- You might have a sinus infection: Sinus infections and ear infections can both be caused by common colds, especially if your body isn’t able to drain fluid as efficiently as it normally does. A sinus infection can cause your ears to feel blocked and full even if your cold symptoms are a distant memory.
There May Be an Underlying Issue
If the blockage in your ears can’t be explained by any of the above possibilities, you may have an underlying condition causing the blockage. For example, you could have a buildup of earwax creating problems. Or there could be an unexpected growth in your ear canal making trouble. It’s possible for these issues to develop at the same time as your cold (it’s also possible that you don’t notice them until your cold incited some symptoms in the first place).
In these cases, it’s certainly a good idea to seek out some professional help, often from a hearing specialist.
Don’t Ignore a Blockage
If a blockage doesn’t go away on its own–or if it’s accompanied by discomfort and pain–you should avoid ignoring it. If a blockage is the sign of an ear infection, for example, treatment will be able to alleviate symptoms and possibly serious damage to your ears.
Blockages that are ignored can, in many cases, result in significant or permanent hearing loss. So it’s a good idea to get things checked out while it’s still in the “inconvenient” category.
If you’ve just recovered from your cold, it’s likely that your blocked ears will be just fine in a day or so. But the longer the blockage persists, the more urgent proper care may become.