Why do my ears feel clogged?
Common causes of blocked or plugged up ears
There are times when you purposely plug your ears—think fingers or earplugs—and then there are, well, other times when your ears feel clogged or plugged up for no good reason.
Why is sound muffled when there doesn’t appear to be anything inside your ear canal? The causes can range from the earwax to allergies to infections (yes, including COVID) to more insidious conditions like an anxiety disorder or Meniere's disease.
Here are four of the most common reasons why your ears might feel clogged or plugged up:
Normally, earwax is the body’s way of protecting the ear. Its sticky consistency traps dirt and other pollutants, act as a lubricant, and because it naturally falls out of the ear canal on its own, serves as a natural self-cleaning agent. On occasion, however, it can become impacted and affect your ability to hear.
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, the following symptoms indicate earwax is causing a problem:
The only way to know for sure—and to remove the earwax safely from the affected ear—is to see a physician or your hearing healthcare professional for ear cleaning. Please note that it is never appropriate to try and remove the earwax yourself using a cotton swab, baby oil, or hydrogen peroxide. Not only could you accidentally puncture your eardrum or push the earwax deeper into the canal and cause impaction, removing this natural protective lubricant can lead to the development of dry, itchy ears. It’s best to let a professional determine whether or not your ears need a more thorough cleaning beyond what you can safely do with a warm, soapy washcloth.
More: Why do my ears itch and what can I do about it?
Fluid in the ear
Fluid can develop in the ear for several reasons. Here are some of the most common:
Children and adults who develop middle ear infections, known as otitis media, may experience a plugged ear sensation due to fluid build-up behind the eardrum. Although this condition usually clears on its own, it can be painful. It’s time to call a doctor if the pain is severe, you notice a fluid discharge or symptoms persist for more than a day. Children younger than six months should be seen immediately.
Another reason to appreciate earwax? It acts as a deterrent for water to enter the ear when you swim or bathe. Even so, there are times water can get trapped in the ears, bathing or moist environments. If it does, try these simple techniques to encourage it to drain.
You may be familiar with stuffed nasal passages and facial tenderness brought about by sinus pressure, but did you know it can also cause temporary hearing loss? The sinus cavities—hollow spaces located in your bones near the nose and between the eyes—are also located beside the ear canal. When you experience an inflammation in your sinus cavities, it can cause your Eustachian tubes to swell. When that happens, the connection between the middle ear and throat is closed which puts pressure on the eardrum causing that clogged ear feeling—or worse—pain and hearing loss. Both spring allergies and a sinus infection can cause stuffy ears, though infections are typically more painful. Also, in some cases, allergies can cause temporary hearing loss.
Fortunately, most hearing loss caused by sinus pressure is temporary and hearing returns to normal once the sinus congestion clears. Even so, if you experience pain or sudden hearing loss due to sinus congestion, contact your family doctor. They can determine the cause of your discomfort and prescribe medication to alleviate the pain and swelling. Sometimes the solution is as simple as swallowing or yawning to equalize the pressure in the inner ears.
Ear stuffiness, earache and COVID-19
Because COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, it can sometimes cause congestion, sinus pressure and ear pain—just like the common cold can make your ears stuffy or achy. Common symptoms of the coronavirus include fatigue, sore throat, cough, fever and chills. However, Omicron variant does seem to be more like the common cold (especially if you're vaccinated), which could lead to ear congestion and earaches.
In very rare cases, the virus has been linked to sudden hearing loss. If you are experiencing any cold or flu symptoms, it's best to contact your doctor, who can advise you if you should get tested.
More: COVID-19 and hearing loss
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is one of the most common types of sensorineural hearing loss. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), as many as 40 million Americans have hearing loss in one or both ears which may have been caused by exposure to excessive noise over a long period of time or a one time exposure to an extremely loud noise, such as an explosion or blast.
If your ears feel clogged or you hear ringing in your ears (tinnitus) after an evening with friends at the club or an afternoon in a rowdy sports stadium, it’s likely due to excessive noise exposure. The muffled sounds you may hear after are known as temporary threshold shift. Although these symptoms typically clear within 48 hours, you can prevent permanent hearing loss by taking precautions the next time you know you’ll be in a noisy environment:
Other less common causes
Anxiety can cause ear fullness, pressure and pain
Some people with severe chronic anxiety or panic disorder may experience ear pain and pressure, especially during a panic attack or when under a lot of stress. You may experience this as ear pressure, fullness, pain or even that your ears simply "feel weird." You may have a near-constant urge to pop your ears to relieve the pressure, but the ear popping does little to help you feel better.
Why does this happen? The inner ears are very sensitive to changes in fluid and blood supply. If your heart is racing and/or your blood pressure is elevated because you feel anxious (and/or you have a heart condition), your ears can be affected very quickly. Likewise, elevated stress hormones can alter the delicate balance of fluids in your ear, making them swell.
Meniere's disease and balance disorders
People with inner ear conditions, such as Meniere's, may experience what they perceive as "ear fullness" due to an imbalance of ear fluids in the inner ear. If this symptom if accompanied by dizziness, tinnitus, balance problems or hearing loss, you should seek medical help.
Outer ear infection ("swimmer's ear")
The first stages of an outer ear infection, known as swimmer's ear, often include muffled hearing or a feeling of clogged ears. In some cases, there may be discharge.
Traumatic brain injury or concussion
Traumatic head injuries can hearing loss, tinnitus and a feeling of "aural fullness," which is the feeling that your ears won't pop.
Seek help for clogged ears
Although we’ve covered four of the most common reasons you ears may feel clogged, it’s always wise to seek the advice of a hearing healthcare professional whenever you are having trouble hearing. Unclogging your ears at home using home remedies such as ear candling or a cotton swab is never a good idea.
Here’s a tip: Find a doctor, hearing specialist or audiologist near you and have your hearing evaluated before trouble starts. The baseline information the initial test provides will be a good benchmark for your medical team to use in an emergency situation and to monitor your hearing health.