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How to unclog ears: Home remedies & medicines

Last update on Feb, 07, 2024

Everyone who has been on an airplane or has had a cold, sinus infection or allergies knows how frustrating clogged ears can be. No matter the cause, the feeling of congestion and fullness makes you even more uncomfortable. While there’s no cure-all for a condition with possible causes, including illness, allergies and sensitivity to air pressure, there are ways to alleviate clogged ears.

Why are my ears clogged?

At a physiological level, clogged ears are caused by swelling or a blockage in the Eustachian tubes that connect the middle ear to the back of your nose or from wax (cerumen) impaction in the ear canal. That’s what leads to the stuffy and full sensation. Before you can find out how to unclog ears, you need to understand what may be causing the blockage. That way, you can target your treatment and resolve the clogged ear at its source. It could be:

All of these can lead to blockage and swelling in the Eustachian tubes.

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How to unclog your ears

When you know what’s causing the problem, you can explore options for how to unclog ears. It’ll vary by cause, but some possible solutions include:

Below, we’ll review the methods behind these approaches and detail your treatment options for how to unclog an ear.

Clogged ear home remedies

Luckily, there are plenty of simple methods for unclogging ears. Here are some tried-and-true home remedies for how to unclog ears.

Certain maneuvers can equalize the pressure in your ears and pop them, which is ideal for airplane ear or any time you’re experiencing fluid buildup. Yawning, swallowing and chewing will open up your Eustachian tubes, which can clear up clogged ears. Other motions, like chewing gum or blowing your nose, can have the same effect. Two specific maneuvers to unclog ears and reduce pressure include:

  • The Toynbee maneuver: Keep your mouth closed, pinch both nostrils to prevent any air from escaping then deeply swallow.
  • The Valsalva maneuver: Close your mouth while pinching your nostrils, then try to breathe out forcefully without letting any air escape your mouth or nose. However, be cautious with this method. If you exhale too hard, you could potentially rupture an eardrum.

Try doing these maneuvers a few times until you hear a popping sound. It’s important to note that the motions’ positive effects will only be temporary if illness, infection or earwax remains and continues to interfere with your ears.

First, a precaution: Don’t use mineral oil in a clogged ear if you have an infection or perforated eardrums, wear hearing aids or have undergone ear surgery. If none of those situations apply to you, but you have an ear wax blockage, ask a medical professional about using mineral oil to loosen it. Mineral oil can dissolve or help soften the earwax when placed carefully in the ear canal. 

Can steam unclog ears? Sometimes. The heat from a compress or steam can warm up earwax built up in your ear, which will then dislodge it. As a bonus, it can also alleviate some pain associated with that buildup and ear infections. 

If you’re wondering how to unclog your ears with water, take note: You must be very careful about putting water in your ears. It should be a sterile saline solution, which is a mixture of water and salt sterilized to prevent infection.

Using any liquid, including saline solution, to flush out in your ear is also called ear irrigation; a syringe is used to direct the fluid into your ear canal to dissolve or dislodge earwax. Before doing this, you should ensure that your clogged ear isn’t caused by something more serious, like illness or infection, and it’s always best to talk to a medical professional before attempting it.

Unfortunately, there’s always a chance that ear irrigation will trap water in your ear, leading to an ear infection or even damage to the eardrum. Be cautious and avoid ear irrigation if you already have an existing infection, eardrum damage or have had surgery on your ears.

Certain kinds of peroxide can be useful when dealing with a clogged ear. Both hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide—a compound of hydrogen peroxide and urea—are commonly found in ear drops used for breaking down earwax.

A few drops of hydrogen peroxide into the ear can soften the wax, allowing it to break up and dissolve. Like many other forms of liquid treatment for earwax buildup, consult a doctor before using these peroxides if you have a ruptured eardrum, an infection or tubes in your ears.

Sometimes, all it takes is gravity to release the tension from your clogged ear. Especially for cases of fluid buildup, laying down on your side that has the problem ear may help to disrupt the ear clog. Putting a warm compress on the affected ear while laying down can also speed up the process
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Over-the-counter treatments to unclog ears

When you’re experiencing clogged ears, you need a quick fix to resolve the discomfort. Often, that’s best done with over-the-counter treatments and medications. Here are some solutions for how to unclog ears with the help of OTC medications:

If your clogged ear is from sinus pressure, nasal congestion or allergies, a nasal spray may be your best course of action. A nasal spray will go directly to your sinuses to treat your symptoms at their source.

Since many nasal spray types—nasal steroids, antihistamines and decongestants—are medicated, it’s important to use them sparingly and take breaks from them. Certain nasal sprays can be bought over the counter, while others may require a prescription. 

Like nasal spray, a saline mist is a great option for treating nasal-related ear pressure and fullness. However, unlike nasal spray, saline mist doesn’t contain medication and can be used regularly. This mixture of salt and water can treat congestion from allergies or colds. Using it to flush out the nasal passage will help relieve pressure and potentially help unclog your ears. 

Oral decongestants are another way to clear both sinus and nasal congestion, which can be a root cause of clogged ears. They can help with symptoms of the common cold, sinus infections and various allergies. If an oral decongestant is effective enough in tackling the congestion, it can, in turn, alleviate a clogged ear. 

Like hydrogen or carbamide peroxide and mineral oil, ear drops can loosen or dissolve earwax buildup in your ears.

There’s an array of ear drops available both over the counter and by prescription—ear drops for ear wax, ear aches, swimmer’s ear, dry ear, etc. Be sure to consult a pharmacist or healthcare provider when you’re unsure of which one fits your needs.

Things to avoid to unclog ears

Knowing what not to do is as important as what you should do when it comes to clogged ears. Ensure that you understand how to unclog ears in a safe but effective way and what you should steer clear of to avoid making the problem worse. 

Cotton swabs, while popular, aren’t a safe option when attempting to remove ear wax and unclog your ears. In fact, they can worsen the issue if ear wax buildup is the reason you’re experiencing fullness or pressure. When you put a cotton swab or tool in your ear, it can push the earwax further down your ear canal and condense it

When researching solutions for clogged ears, you may come across what’s known as ear candling. Also known as ear coning, in this method, you place a hollow candle into your ear and then light the end farthest from your ear.

This method is supposed to use heat to create a vacuum effect that pulls wax out of the ear. However, it’s neither safe nor effective. You risk the chance of burning your ear, and it won’t solve your clogged ear issue.

Not only can caffeine, salt, tobacco and alcohol worsen a clogged ear, but they can also cause it in the first place. These substances affect circulation in the blood vessels and perpetuate congestion. Increased intake could lead to the feeling of a clogged ear. Consuming caffeine, salt, tobacco and alcohol in moderation, or eliminating them from your routine altogether, could help in solving your clogged ear problem sooner.

When to see a doctor for clogged ears

If symptoms worsen or last longer than two weeks, make a doctor’s appointment. If you have concerning symptoms such as ear discharge, dizziness, hearing loss and ringing, make an appointment as soon as possible. 

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