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Why Do My Ears Feel Clogged? – Forbes Health

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A clogged ear is a familiar sensation that most people experience at some point. Whether due to water after swimming or the common cold, a clogged ear can feel uncomfortable and may come with other symptoms, but it’s often short-lived and easily treatable. However, in some cases, a clogged or congested ear may signify something more serious. Understanding what a clogged ear is—including common triggers, symptoms and treatment options—may help you determine if and when it’s time to contact a medical professional.

What’s That Clogged Ear Feeling?

A clogged ear generally refers to a fullness, pressure or feeling like something is in the ear, says Kristan Alfonso, pediatric otolaryngologist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine. A clogged ear can sometimes be caused by wax or a foreign object blocking the external auditory canal or ear canal, according to Dr. Alfonso. An ear can also feel clogged or congested because of fluid buildup behind the eardrum.

In some cases, what people may describe as a clogged ear is actually hearing loss, explains Dr. Alfonso. Beyond the middle ear is the inner ear, where the cochlea, or hearing organ, is located. If someone is experiencing hearing loss, there could be a blockage in the inner ear or something wrong with the hearing organ, she adds.

Common Causes of Ears Feeling Clogged

There are many reasons for feeling a clogged or congested ear, but most causes fall into one of two categories: something is physically blocking the ear, or there’s pressure within the ear causing the fullness feeling, according to Dr. Alfonso.

Blockage

Blockage in the ear can be caused by water, earwax, or a foreign object—or, in rare cases—a growth, such as a tumor, says Dr. Alfonso.

  • Water: If a person experiences a clogged ear after taking a shower or swimming, it’s typically because of water in the ear. Once the water dries out, the clogged, soggy feeling typically eases, according to Dr. Alfonso.
  • Earwax: Excess earwax can cause a blockage and may also cause itchiness, earaches, ringing in the ears or infection.
  • A foreign object: Finding a foreign object in the ear canal, such as toys, bugs or food, is common among young children.
  • Growth: In rare cases, an individual may have a cyst or tumor in the outer, middle or inner ear.

Pressure

Pressure within the ear may also cause an ear to feel clogged. A few common reasons for ear pressure include allergies, the common cold, ear infections, and elevation, according to Dr. Alfonso.

  • Allergies: Swelling in the nose and throat due to allergies can lead to swelling at the opening of the Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ears to the back of the throat.
  • Colds: Similar to allergies, colds may cause swelling in the Eustachian tube and pressure in the middle ear.
  • Ear infection: Most ear infections affect the middle ear because of bacteria or viruses. Infections can cause inflammation and fluid buildup, leading to a congested feeling in the ear.
  • Elevation: When a change in elevation occurs, such as in a plane or on an elevator, the increase in air pressure can cause the eardrum to stretch and make the ear feel full.

Clogged Ear Symptoms

Aside from feeling full or congested, a clogged ear may come with additional symptoms, such as:

  • Earaches
  • Difficulty hearing or hearing loss
  • Tinnitus or the ringing of the ears
  • Itching
  • Odor
  • Discharge
  • Pain

Treatment Options for Clogged Ears

When treating a clogged ear, Dr. Alfonso notes it’s important to not put anything into the ear, like a Q-tip, as objects like this can cause more damage. Instead, she offers a few at-home treatment options to try.

  • Dry the ear. To treat water in the ear, tilt the head, and wipe the outside of the ear with a cloth. Also, try drying the ear with a hairdryer on low heat.
  • Earwax preparation kit. To treat earwax buildup, try an over-the-counter earwax preparation kit to soften the wax so it’s easier to clean out. Avoid ear candles—and the risk of possible burns.
  • Nasal saline irrigations. These saline sprays are helpful, low-risk options for unclogging an ear that’s congested from allergies.
  • Nasal steroids or allergy sprays. These sprays may provide relief for congested ears. However, Dr. Alfonso warns that people using allergy medications should not use a decongestant spray for longer than three days.

How to Prevent Clogged Ears

While clogged ears may not always be preventable, there are certain methods that can help reduce their likelihood. To reduce the risk of clogged ears, Dr. Alfonso suggests taking the following precautions.

  • Take a decongestant before boarding a plane to help prevent pressure buildup in the ears.
  • For those prone to seasonal allergies, allergy medication may provide some relief.
  • Earwax softening drops can help loosen and remove excess earwax.
  • Get a professional ear cleaning every four to six months to prevent any buildup of earwax or potential blockages.
  • Use earplugs when swimming or taking a shower.

When to See a Doctor

A clogged ear can typically clear up on its own or with over-the-counter medicine, says Dr. Alfonso. However, she also mentions that a clogged ear can be a sign of a more serious condition or complication, such as hearing loss or a cyst. Dr. Alfonso suggests seeking medical care for anyone experiencing the following symptoms:

  • A sudden onset of congestion
  • Congestion lasting longer than 10 days
  • Feelings of pain, dizziness or vertigo with ear congestion
  • Asymmetry in the face or facial paralysis
  • If hearing loss occurs

“We typically try and get patients in very quickly for it to test their hearing and make sure there’s nothing else that could be causing the hearing loss,” says Dr. Alfonso. “Very rarely, there’s a type of a benign tumor that can grow on the hearing nerve.” In the case of a tumor, Dr. Alfonso notes an MRI can confirm if a growth is present. If a tumor is found, it’s typically treated with oral steroids or injectable steroids in the ear to make sure sudden hearing loss doesn’t occur, she adds.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

When seeking care for a clogged ear, Dr. Alfonso suggests asking specific questions to ensure a comprehensive examination and experience.

  • Does my medical history put me at risk for anything I may mistake as a clogged ear? Conditions like head trauma, autoimmune disease or neurological disorders can increase risk for sudden hearing loss or deafness.
  • Will my clogged ear reoccur? If so, how can I prevent or limit it? Earwax buildup and allergies are risk factors for recurring clogged ears. A health care provider can recommend the best ways to reduce the risk of getting clogged ears, whether through medications or professional cleanings.
  • Will my clogged ear have lasting effects? Time is of the essence for many ear issues, so be sure to seek medical help quickly when symptoms of hearing loss occur.

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