If you’ve ever flown on a plane, driven through the mountains or been sick with a head cold, chances are you’ve dealt with the uncomfortable plugged-up sensation in your ears.
There are a few different causes for this uncomfortable feeling of fullness in your ears and some things you can do to relieve it.
If you’re looking to relieve a clogged ear, read on to figure out what you can do about it.
Why do my ears feel full?
The most common reason for ears to feel clogged or plugged is due to a problem with the tiny canals that connect your ears, nose and throat called eustachian tubes.
“The eustachian tube is a tube that connects to the space behind your ear drum (the middle ear) and drains into the back of your nose,” said Chris Adams, PA, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Banner – University Medicine North. “The purpose of the tubes is to let fluid drain from behind the ear drum to prevent trauma or infection and also regulate air pressure between the environment and the middle ear.”
These tubes are normally closed but open when you chew, swallow or yawn. This naturally balances the pressure in your middle ear. However, if these tubes become narrowed or blocked due to illness or condition, you may feel congestion and even experience temporary hearing loss in your ears that doesn’t seem to go away.
Below are some common causes of pressure in the ears and how to find relief.
When you’re sick with something like a cold, flu or sinus infection
The eustachian tubes can start to have problems with drainage and air pressure balance when you have a cold or sinus issues. When the tubes are partially blocked, it’s much harder for fluid to flow down the back of your throat.
“Since the eustachian tubes empty into the back of the nose, anything that causes swelling in this area can cause swelling around the opening of the eustachian tubes,” Adams said. “When this swelling occurs, it blocks off the opening of the eustachian tubes so you can start to develop pressure behind the ear drum and in some cases, fluid buildup as well.”
In addition, these illnesses can also cause a stuffy nose, postnasal drip, cough, headache and a host of other symptoms.
How to relieve ear pressure when you have a cold or sinus congestion:
Home remedies: Sometimes simply chewing gum can help as this can force the eustachian tubes to open as you’re chewing and swallowing. To ease discomfort, you can try breathing in steam in the shower or with a humidifier or rinsing your nasal passages with saline.
OTC medications: Over-the-counter meds like Sudafed or a decongestant nasal spray like Afrin may help decrease the swelling in the sinuses. However, talk to your health care provider before taking these medications.
“If you have high blood pressure you should always check with your provider to see if it is OK to take Sudafed as it can cause increases in your blood pressure,” Adams said. “Afrin should never be used for more than three days in a row because your nose can become dependent on it to stay decongested.”
Prescription medication: If your symptoms persist, your provider may prescribe steroid pills to help with swelling or an antibiotic to treat a persistent infection.
When you have a middle ear infection (otitis media)
Otitis media, more commonly referred to as a middle ear infection, is a buildup of fluid behind the eardrum that can, and often does, harbor bacteria or virus. An ear infection can cause ear pressure, fluid drainage, fever and sometimes temporary hearing loss. Children are more likely to get this type of ear infection than adults due to the shape of their eustachian tubes.
“An infection of the middle ear can cause pressure in a couple ways,” Adams said. “Simply having fluid behind the eardrum from the infection will cause pressure and often pain and the infection will cause your eardrum to become irritated and inflamed and that will cause pressure as well.”
Likewise, swimmer’s ear (otitis externa, an infection in the outer part of your ear) can also lead to ear pressure when water is trapped in their ear.
How to relieve pressure when you have a middle ear infection:
Antibiotics: Sometimes an ear infection clears up on its own within two or three days, but antibiotics are usually required such as amoxicillin. “If you have an ear infection of the ear canal, antibiotic ear drops like Cortisporin or Ciprodex are recommended.”
OTC pain relievers: Take an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
“In some cases, ear infections can cause a rupture or hole to form in the eardrum, which can also cause a sensation of fullness even after the infection has resolved due to the hearing loss,” Adams said.
A ruptured ear drum usually heals within a few weeks and might not need treatment. But it’s a good idea to see your provider if you think your eardrum has burst. In addition to ear pressure, symptoms could include sharp ear pain that subsides quickly, drainage, tinnitus (ringing in your ears) or hearing loss.
When you have ear barotrauma (AKA airplane ear)
Whether you’re traveling by plane or by car through the mountains, you may experience ear barotrauma. It’s a common health problem for those who fly, and it can be especially painful for babies and young kids whose ears aren’t fully developed.
“Barotrauma can occur when there is a large difference between the pressure in the atmosphere and the pressure behind the eardrum that is not balanced by the eustachian tubes,” Adams said.
For example, when you fly in a plane and as the cabin pressure increases, the eustachian tubes don’t open enough to equalize the pressure in the middle ear. As this difference in pressure builds up, the ear drum can start to be stretched, resulting in pain, pressure and hearing loss.
“In some instances, the stretching can become severe enough to cause a hole to form in the eardrum or even some bleeding in the middle ear,” Adams said. “In both cases, they can cause quite a bit of ear fullness and the hearing loss.”
How to relieve pressure when you have ear barotrauma:
Home remedies: You can chew on gum or suck on candy, yawn, swallow or pinch your nose and gently blow (known as the Valsalva maneuver).
“When you gently ‘pop’ your ears, you’re forcing air up through the eustachian tube which can assist with clearing fluid behind the eardrum and equalize the pressure difference,” Adams said. “However, it’s not advised to do this constantly as all the increase pressure behind the eardrum can cause it to stretch out.”
Surgery: In cases of severe or chronic ear barotrauma, your provider may decide that surgery, such as the placement of ear tubes, may be the best option for treatment.
When you have a temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder
If you clench or grind your teeth, you can also get ear fullness caused by inflammation in the jaw joint. If you experience fullness in your ears along with jaw pain or stiffness, chronic headaches and neck pain, talk to your health care provider or dentist about TMJ disorders.
How to relieve pressure for TMJ disorder:
Home remedies: Rest and care for your jaw by eating soft foods and using warm or cold compresses on your jaw area.
OTC medications: Take anti-inflammatory meds to help reduce symptoms.
Medical interventions: If your TMJ becomes chronic, your provider may recommend the use of a custom orthotic appliance to wear at night, injectable or prescription medications or physical therapy.
Could your ear fullness be hearing loss?
“Another common cause of ear fullness is simply hearing loss,” Adams said. “The brain can get a little confused when you have hearing loss and will create a sensation that your ears feel plugged up or full.”
What if the ear pressure doesn’t go away?
Ear pressure is a common, and typically temporary, occurrence. If it doesn’t get better with treatment:
Save your spot for a virtual or in-person urgent care visit.
Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider.
Schedule an appointment with an ear, nose and throat specialist.