If you’ve ever taken a flight, driven through mountainous regions, or suffered from a head cold, you’re likely familiar with the uncomfortable feeling of blocked or plugged ears. This sensation can be caused by several factors, but there are ways to find relief. So, if you’re looking for ways to unclog your ears, keep reading.
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Understanding the Feeling of Fullness in Your Ears
The most common reason for the feeling of clogged or plugged ears is an issue with the eustachian tubes. These tiny canals connect your ears, nose, and throat and are responsible for maintaining proper air pressure in your middle ear.
According to Chris Adams, PA, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at Banner – University Medicine North, “The eustachian tube connects to the space behind your ear drum and drains into the back of your nose. Its purpose is to let fluid drain from behind the ear drum and regulate air pressure between the environment and the middle ear.”
Normally, these tubes remain closed, but they open when you chew, swallow, or yawn. This naturally balances the pressure in your middle ear. However, if the tubes become narrow or blocked due to illness or a medical condition, you may experience congestion and temporary hearing loss that doesn’t seem to go away.
Let’s explore some common causes of ear pressure and how to find relief.
When You’re Ill with a Cold, Flu, or Sinus Infection
When you have a cold or sinus issues, your eustachian tubes may encounter problems with drainage and air pressure balance. The tubes can become partially blocked, making it difficult for fluid to flow down the back of your throat. This leads to a condition known as eustachian tube dysfunction.
Adams explains, “Anything that causes swelling in the area around the opening of the eustachian tubes can block them off. This swelling can result in pressure behind the ear drum and, in some cases, a buildup of fluid in the ear.”
In addition to ear pressure, these illnesses can cause symptoms like a stuffy nose, sore throat, postnasal drip, cough, headache, and more.
How to Relieve Ear Pressure Due to a Cold or Sinus Congestion
There are a few methods you can try at home to alleviate ear pressure caused by a cold or sinus congestion. Chewing gum can sometimes help as it prompts the eustachian tubes to open while you chew and swallow. Additionally, breathing in steam from a shower or humidifier, or rinsing your nasal passages with saline, can provide relief.
Over-the-counter medications like Sudafed or nasal decongestant sprays such as Afrin may also reduce sinuses’ swelling. However, it’s crucial to consult your healthcare provider before taking these medications. If you have high blood pressure, Sudafed may not be suitable for you. Moreover, Afrin should not be used for more than three consecutive days to prevent dependency.
In case your symptoms persist, your healthcare provider might prescribe steroid pills to reduce swelling or antibiotics to treat an ongoing infection.
Middle Ear Infection (Otitis Media)
Otitis media, commonly known as a middle ear infection, occurs when fluid accumulates behind the eardrum, often harboring bacteria or viruses. Middle ear infections can cause ear pressure, fluid drainage, fever, and temporary hearing loss. Children are more susceptible to this type of ear infection due to the shape of their eustachian tubes.
Adams explains, “Having fluid behind the eardrum causes pressure and often pain. Additionally, the infection can irritate and inflame the eardrum, leading to further pressure.”
Swimmer’s ear (otitis externa), an infection in the outer part of your ear, can also cause ear pressure when water becomes trapped in the ear.
Relieving Pressure from a Middle Ear Infection
Treatment for a middle ear infection may involve antibiotics, such as amoxicillin. In the case of an ear canal infection, antibiotics in the form of eardrops like Cortisporin or Ciprodex are recommended.
Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help alleviate pain.
In some cases, a middle ear infection can result in a ruptured eardrum, which may cause a feeling of fullness even after the infection has cleared. Symptoms of a ruptured eardrum include ear pressure, sharp ear pain that subsides quickly, drainage, ringing in the ears, or hearing loss. If you suspect a ruptured eardrum, it’s advisable to see your healthcare provider for evaluation.
Ear Barotrauma (Airplane Ear)
Whether you’re traveling by plane or driving through mountainous areas, you may experience ear barotrauma, a common issue for frequent flyers. Babies and young children, whose ears are not fully developed, may find this especially painful.
Adams explains, “Barotrauma occurs when there is a significant pressure difference between the atmosphere and the space behind the eardrum that is not balanced by the eustachian tubes.”
For instance, when you fly in a plane, the pressure in the cabin increases while the eustachian tubes may not open sufficiently to equalize the pressure in the middle ear. As the pressure difference intensifies, the eardrum may stretch, leading to pain, pressure, and hearing loss.
Severe stretching can even cause a hole in the eardrum or bleeding in the middle ear, which results in significant ear fullness and hearing loss.
Relieving Pressure from Ear Barotrauma
There are some simple remedies you can try at home to relieve pressure from ear barotrauma. Chewing gum, sucking on candy, yawning, swallowing, or performing the Valsalva maneuver (pinching your nose and gently blowing) can help “pop” your ears. This action forces air up through the eustachian tube, clearing fluid behind the eardrum and equalizing the pressure difference. However, avoid excessive pressure changes, as this can stretch the eardrum.
In severe or chronic cases of ear barotrauma, your healthcare provider may suggest surgical options such as ear tube placement to alleviate symptoms.
Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder
Ear fullness can also result from inflammation in the jaw joint caused by teeth grinding or clenching. If you experience ear fullness along with jaw pain or stiffness, chronic headaches, or neck pain, consult your healthcare provider or dentist for possible temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders.
Relieving Pressure from TMJ Disorder
To relieve pressure caused by TMJ disorder, you can try some home remedies. Rest your jaw by consuming soft foods and applying warm or cold compresses to the jaw area. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications can also help reduce symptoms.
In chronic cases, healthcare providers may recommend custom orthotic appliances to wear at night, injectable or prescription medications, or physical therapy.
Could Ear Fullness Indicate Hearing Loss?
Another common cause of ear fullness is hearing loss. When you experience hearing loss, your brain can create a sensation of blocked or plugged ears. This feeling of fullness can persist even after the hearing loss issue has resolved.
When Ear Pressure Persists
Although ear pressure is usually temporary, it’s important to seek medical attention if it doesn’t improve with home remedies or over-the-counter treatments. Consider scheduling an appointment with a primary care provider or an ear, nose, and throat specialist to address your concerns.
For more information about ear-related issues, visit 5 WS, a reliable source for medical information.
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