Most people are familiar with stuffy ears, especially during specific times of the year, like cold and allergy seasons. While ear pressure can be a nuisance, it is often quickly remediated with little to no need for surgical or prescription intervention. However, many causes can affect the outer or middle ear, requiring different treatment approaches.
Common Causes of Clogged Ears or Pressure
While people can worry about ear problems stemming from conditions such as acoustic neuroma, cholesteatoma, Meniere’s disease, TMJ disorders, fungal infections, or chronic otitis media, these issues are rare. More likely, a patient suffers from one of several more common and easily treated conditions.
Many people are allergic to pet dander, pollen, and mold. It is not uncommon for these individuals to develop allergic rhinitis, causing inflammation in the nasal passages and effecting the eustachian tubes, resulting in pressure in the ear.
Similar to allergies, colds result in congestion and inflammation. The illnesses also affect the Eustachian tubes, preventing the equalization of pressure within the middle ear.
- Earwax buildup:
While earwax is a natural and protective element of the body, it does not function as it should for every person. Earwax should move down the ear canal and flake off when it reaches the outer ear. Unfortunately, some people develop wax faster than others, causing a buildup, resulting in increased pressure.
Sinuses are hollow cavities in your skull and jawbones. A viral or bacterial infection, known as sinusitis, can cause swelling of these areas of your face, leading to the sense of pressure buildup in your ear.
- Ear infections:
Two types of ear infection can lead to pressure: swimmer’s ear and otitis media. Swimmer’s ear, caused by water bacteria, affects the outer portion of the ear. While the out ear is the most impacted, people often express feeling pressure of the inner ear because of fluid buildup and swelling.
Otitis media is an infection affecting the eustachian tube and the middle ear. The condition leads to poor drainage and fluid buildup, promoting infection growth and spread.
- Foreign object:
While more of a problem among small children, the placement of a foreign object in the ear will cause discomfort and an increase of pressure. Things stuck in the ear canal can result in damage to the drum or other sensitive ear parts.
- Change in altitude:
A plane ride, drive through the mountains, or a deep dive in the ocean can result in ear pressure. Typically, the eustachian tubes do not have enough time to respond to the rapid altitude shift, resulting in a force on the ear canal.
Treatments for Clogged Ears
Other than removing a foreign object, the treatments for the most common causes of pressure are over-the-counter medications or simple remedies. However, every option will vary depending on the location of the ear pressure or problem. Therefore, when considering ways of unclogging ears, you must first identify if your trouble is in the middle or outer ear.
Between the ear canal and the eustachian tube, auditory nerve, and cochlea is a pressurized, air-filled membrane known as the tympanic cavity or the middle ear. The eardrum is the separation between the ear canal and this cavity. Undue pressure in this area requires intervention through OTC medications, like oral decongestant or nasal sprays, or you can try a physical maneuver, such as the Valsalva maneuver.
The Valsalva Maneuver is a breathing technique primarily used for exercise or restoring heart rhythm. However, you can also use it to release pressure in your ears in five steps.
- Hold your nose closed
- Close your mouth tight
- Engage your abdominal muscles
- Hold for about 15 seconds
The outer ear, known as the pinna or auricle, is the part of the ear seen by people, and it is unique to every person. This portion of the ear is cartilage and skin with three primary elements: the tragus, helix, and lobule. You can treat pressure in this area of the ear in several ways, including medication, mineral oil, hydrogen peroxide, carbamide peroxide otic, irrigation, or a warm compress or steam. One of these methods should provide some relief, but it might not be permanent. Depending on the underlying cause, you may need several treatments to experience lasting pressure relief.
Protecting the Ear
The ear is a fragile part of your body. You can do irreparable damage to it if you are not careful. Most physicians do not recommend cleaning out your ears every day and suggest that you only wash the outside portion of your ears with warm water and a washcloth.
While pressure buildup is frustrating, you should avoid putting things in your ears to try and relieve it, especially your finger. Your hands come into contact with bacteria and germs throughout the day, and these elements can lead to infections or worse.
If you cannot cope with the pressure, you might want to schedule a doctor’s appointment to investigate your problem’s underlying cause. However, keep in mind that most ear issues resolve on their own within a few days or more.
Seeing a Doctor
While it is not always necessary to schedule a doctor’s appointment, there are situations when you should. If you suspect that your ear troubles stem from an infection, then a prescription medication is more effective than OTC meds. You will also want to consider your other symptoms. For example, if your symptoms include ear pain, hearing loss, dizziness, ringing sounds, or discharge, it is best to schedule a visit with an audiologist. Even if it does not indicate a severe problem; seeing a doctor can be precautionary.
Clogged ears and pressure are nuisances. People often feel frustrated or worried when they do not feel 100%. Thankfully, most pressure problems related to the ears are treatable at home with little need for worry or stress. However, in some cases, you may want to schedule an appointment with a doctor to investigate the source of your ear problems, especially if they persist or are accompanied by other symptoms.