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Ear pressure: Blocked & clogged ears

Ear pressure and how to relieve it: Causes, symptoms and treatments

Ear pressure can occur in everyday situations and often has benign causes. However, prolonged ear pressure may indicate poor ventilation of the ear or underlying health problems. In this article, you will learn more about the most common symptoms, causes and treatments for ear pressure.

Symptoms of ear pressure

Clogged ears, blocked ears or plugged ears typically indicate a subjective sensation of ear fullness that affects one or both ears. This frequent symptom is often associated with an alteration or even a reduction in hearing ability. It is important to specify that pressure in the ears and hearing loss are different, even if they can coexist in numerous diseases. The most common symptoms of ear pressure are:

When to see a doctor

If ear pressure symptoms persist for an extended period and cannot be relieved by swallowing or yawning, it could indicate an ear pressure imbalance or inflammation. In such cases, you should visit your physician or a hearing care specialist for an examination.

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What causes pressure in the ears?

The sensation of pressure in one or both ears can be caused by problems in the outer and middle ear. Below you will find the most common ear pressure causes:

An earwax buildup in the ear canal (outer ear) is perhaps the most frequent cause of pressure in the ear. The accumulation of ceruminous, or earwax, material and debris in the external auditory canal can lead to the total occlusion of the ear canal, causing a consequent sensation of pressure in the ear and a reduction of the hearing capacity. This type of hearing loss is temporary. By removing the earwax plug, hearing loss should disappear.

For many, one of the first signs of a cold is the sensation your ear is closing. If the reason for the pressure on the ears is a cold, the doctor usually recommends using a decongestant or a nasal spray to keep the Eustachian tube open and clear.

Ear pressure in the case of a cold arises primarily from the middle ear not being adequately ventilated. Only then do viruses and bacteria have the opportunity to trigger otitis media. Mucus can get stuck inside the Eustachian tube, and mucus mobilization noises can sometimes be heard when moving the head (Ex. when resting your head on the pillow, chewing or yawning). That's why it's important to keep your ears clean when you have a cold.

In addition to the decongestant or nasal spray,  exhalation or blowing your nose also helps activate mucus drainage and reduce pressure in the ear when you have a cold.

Airplane ear,” as it’s commonly called, occurs when the air pressure in the middle and external ear is out of sync, placing stress on the eardrum and other middle ear tissues. This problem arises especially when the airplane is taking off or descending.

Otitis media, Eustachian tube dysfunction, nasal obstruction due to nasal septum deviation, enlarged tonsils and/or adenoids and turbinate hypertrophy can cause the sensation of ear pressure. A change in how the Eustachian tube functions can alter the correct ventilation of the middle ear leading to difficulty in compensating for any sudden changes in pressure between the two surfaces of the eardrum.

Therapy aims to maintain the correct ventilation in the middle ear. One example of this would be the use of medications to reduce the swelling causing the infection causing the problem. Another potential treatment is surgical correction of the nasal septum.

Among the factors responsible for the sensation of pressure in the ears is otitis externa, an acute or chronic inflammation of the ear canal, also called swimmer's ear. This condition is from the presence of water stagnation in the ears.

This disorder often manifests with skin inflammation, redness, irritation, swelling and eczema. Symptoms are:

  • Fullness in the ears
  • The sensation of clogged and blocked ears
  • Tinnitus
  • Itching in the ear canal
  • Pain to the touch
  • Pain when chewing

The effects of otitis externa may be treated by antibiotic or antifungal therapy if it has a bacterial origin. Furthermore, cleaning the ear canal and applying the drug therapy is very important.

The sensation of fullness in the ears and the difficulty in compensating for slight changes in atmospheric pressure is a problem typically associated with TMJ, caused by poor ventilation inside the ear through the pharyngeal tube.

Typically, the pharyngeal tube opens during swallowing to ventilate the middle ear and to facilitate the release of inflammatory secretions that affect the ear. Both conditions of constant and chronic opening and closing obstacles to the air passage are considered pathological. The walls of the tube (or Eustachian tube), muscle, and mucous membranes collapse easily, preventing air from passing and balancing the atmospheric pressure between the two sides of the eardrum. This condition causes the ear to feel full and clogged, with muffled hearing. The specific treatment for TMJ involves the use of bite interventions and physiotherapy

 

Allergies can also cause the sensation of ear pressure and plugged ears, as they are a major cause of chronic blockage of the Eustachian tube. Antihistamines and decongestants can relieve ear pressure due to allergies or other symptoms.

The sensation of ear pressure and clogged ears often is interpreted as a symptom of Meniere’s disease affecting the inner ear. The endolymph, increasing in volume, causes tinnitus and vertigo. This triad of symptoms, with the feeling of a full ear, characterizes Ménière's syndrome.

When traveling on trains, many people may experience ear pressure and, in some cases, ear pain, particularly when entering a tunnel. This is due to the sudden significant change in air pressure caused by the train moving. As the train enters the tunnel, the air is compressed, leading to an increase in air pressure. However, the body may not have enough time to adjust to the change in pressure, resulting in a feeling of pressure in the ears.

Even divers are particularly prone to ear pressure-related problems, which increase with every meter of depth underwater. To prevent persistent damage to the ear, the pressure must be removed from the eardrum. Each student diver then learns to compensate for the pressure using specific techniques.
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How to relieve ear pressure?

If the ear is blocked, muffled or plugged, the easiest techniques that can help unblock it are:

  • Opening your mouth wide and move your jaw until you hear a soft pop or crackle in your ear
  • Yawning on purpose
  • Applying the Valsalva Maneuver, consisting of holding the nose and mouth closed, then blowing or pushing the air from the lungs into the mouth and the nasal cavity
  • Swallowing and chewing

When we go through a tunnel by train, take off, and land by plane, we often feel a strong pressure in our ears. Usually, this pressure is just uncomfortable but not dangerous. However, what exactly happens in the ear in these situations?

Deep in the ear canal is the eardrum. It is elastic, transmits sound vibrations to the sensitive organs of the middle and inner ear, and closes the ear tightly. If the air pressure changes, the eardrum can swell due to overpressure or under-pressure in the ear, giving the classic sensation of a full ear.

In this case, it is necessary to equalize the pressure in the ear. This is done by balancing the air through the Eustachian tube. There are various methods of achieving pressure equalization, which work differently.

A quick swallow or yawn will usually pop the ears and ease the airplane ear pressure discomfort. Popping is one of the most effective airplane ear treatments. If that’s not enough, here are some other airplane ear pain treatments:

  • Wear earplugs; this can be helpful for particularly sensitive ears (like children’s ones). Due to their elasticity, they reduce the pressure on the eardrum and can help prevent an earache after your flight;
  • Chew gum or let a mint melt in your mouth; this will cause you to swallow more frequently, activating the muscle that opens the Eustachian tube;
  • Yawn frequently; this is a stronger muscle activator than swallowing;
  • Avoid sleep during descent because you may not swallow or yawn enough to keep up with the air pressure changes.
  • If yawning or swallowing does not work, pinch your nostrils shut, breathe in through your mouth, and force the air into the back of your nose (as if you’re trying to blow your nose).
  • Suck on a sucker or hard candy on take-off or during descent.

If there is pressure on the ears, home remedies help to clean the ear. If the ears are closed, this is usually due to too much earwax, a cold or an inflamed ear canal. Those affected can rinse their ears with lukewarm salt water.

A steam bath with chamomile also releases ear pressure. In case of an ear canal infection, drinking chamomile tea and applying a warm compress to the ear may help as a home remedy for blocked ears.

Before using any home remedies, consult with a physician or hearing care professional to learn if the method would be effective in treating your symptoms. 

When fluid accumulates, or pressure imbalances occur in the ear, it is often due to illnesses like the common cold that can cause inflammation of the mucous membranes or swelling in the ear, nose, and throat areas responsible for regulating air pressure - such as the auditory tube.

Allergic reactions can also lead to swelling and pressure in the ears, and treating the underlying condition with medication is recommended in such cases. Depending on the cause, decongestants, nasal sprays, antibiotics, or antiallergic agents may be useful.

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FAQs on ear pressure

If ear pressure persists despite attempts to relieve it through chewing or similar techniques, see a doctor to identify and treat the underlying cause. In the simplest case, it could be due to earwax buildup in the ear canal, which can be removed by a doctor through a simple ear irrigation procedure.

When fluid buildup in the middle ear causes pressure on the eardrum and prevents drainage, minor surgery may be needed for long-term relief. This typically involves piercing the eardrum to allow fluid to escape through a small opening.

In cases where this problem occurs frequently, a tympanostomy tube may be inserted into the eardrum to assist in the ventilation of the middle ear and allow fluids to drain more effectively.

The presence of dizziness, ringing in ears and sensation of ear pressure can be a potential sign of Ménière’s syndrome, with hearing loss and vertigo. In general, when the ear canal or middle ear space is blocked with a buildup of fluid (ear infection), earwax, dirt or other foreign materials, this can cause both the sensation of ear pressure and ringing in the ears.

Migraines often present themselves as more than a headache and include hearing symptoms like ear pressure and tinnitus. A sinus headache can also cause ear pressure. If you have constant migraine and ear pressure, consult your doctor, ENT specialist, or neurologist.

A plugged ear could be caused by a simple excess of earwax, by specific pathologies of interest to the otorhinolaryngologist such as otitis, or something else that goes beyond the scope of "only" headache. Other common symptoms of migraine ear pressure can be:

  • Ear pain
  • Vertigo and dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Sound sensitivity
  • The feeling of ear fullness, with water or even a bug in your ear

Inflammation of the thyroid gland can cause a sensation of "plugged ears." Subacute thyroid is often first confused with a sore throat when there’s a pain in the neck at the level of the thyroid gland. The pain can move from one side of the neck to the other, reach the jaw and up to the ear, causing the sensation of ear pressure and plugged ears.

Preventive measures vary depending on the cause of the ear pressure. Common habits to prevent ear pressure are:

  • Cleaning your ears: Regular hygiene can prevent the formation of earwax plugs; avoid using cotton swabs and Q-Tips;
  • Using earplugs in situations that can lead to pressure in the ears, such as airplane flights;
  • Decongestant nasal sprays: during a cold, it is easier to have the sensation of plugged ears. Decongestant sprays can help to free the eustachian tube.

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Learn more on how your hearing works from our experts. Read helpful articles and the latest hearing care news in our blog.

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