Clogged or Blocked Ears: 12 Possible Causes and Their Treatment

Having blocked ears can alarm many people. Fortunately, most of the causes aren't serious.
Clogged or Blocked Ears: 12 Possible Causes and Their Treatment

Last update: 26 September, 2022

The sensation of clogged or blocked ears is a frequent discomfort in people of all ages. Poor sound perception and straining to hear can become a real challenge. Are you interested in knowing the most common causes of blocked ears? Here we’ll tell you.

Air travel, scuba diving, and mountain hiking are some of the most frequent reasons. In most cases, this discomfort isn’t a serious problem and disappears after a couple of minutes. Likewise, there are some home remedies that bring quick relief.

On the other hand, when the feeling of clogged or blocked ears is accompanied by other symptoms, such as fever or pain, it could be a warning of a more serious condition. In these cases, it’s necessary to visit a specialist in otorhinolaryngology to receive a comprehensive evaluation.

The most frequent causes of blocked ears

The ear is a complex organ responsible for the perception of sound and balance. In general terms, it’s formed by the pinna, the external auditory canal, the tympanic membrane, the ossicle chain and the cochlea.

Any alteration in these areas can make your ears feel blocked up.

The sensation of blocked ears is almost always the result of the blockage of the Eustachian tube. The latter is responsible for communicating the middle ear with the posterior region of the nose. In this way, it equalizes and compensates the pressures between the outside environment and the inside of the ear.

1. Wax accumulation

The sebaceous and ceruminous glands in the external auditory canal continuously produce wax. This wax is liquid, but, over time, it mixes with other substances, such as dead cells or dust, and solidifies. Earwax is usually removed by movements of the jaw during conversations, chewing, or yawning.

In some people, this self-clearing mechanism can fail and the wax becomes trapped. It can even form plugs.

Earwax blockage is a common cause of blocked ears. In addition, the person may experience decreased hearing acuity, itching, ringing, and pain in the ears.

The use of cotton swabs can cause blockage by compacting the wax in the ear canal. Similarly, the use of hearing aids is a risk factor for this condition. Other causes include narrowed ears and atrophy of the cerumen glands.

The treatment of choice is ear lavage by a professional. The procedure softens the accumulated cerumen and favors its later removal. This method is contraindicated in people with recent ear surgery and tympanic perforation.

A man cleaning his ears.
Swabs are not recommended. They tend to compact the wax at the bottom of the ear canal.

2. Water in the ears

Water can enter the ear canal when taking a shower, swimming in the pool or diving into the sea. In general, water flows in and out easily without causing any discomfort. However, in some people the drops can become trapped.

In most cases, the water is released spontaneously by pressure and head movements within a couple of minutes. One recommendation is to tilt the head quickly to the side while holding your breath.

It’s necessary to remove the trapped water, as this condition increases the risk of swimmer’s ear. If the sensation persists after several days, it is advisable to see a specialist.

3. Change of pressure

Air travel and mountain climbing can cause temporary obstruction of the ears. This phenomenon is the result of the failure of the Eustachian tube to equalize and compensate the exchange of pressures between the environment and the middle ear. Something similar occurs in people who dive to great depths.

The perception of blocked ears may last for a couple of minutes until the body adapts, and then disappear when moving to a lower altitude. Some people may also develop altitude sickness, characterized by headache, dizziness, nausea, drowsiness, and shortness of breath.

A tip to avoid this discomfort is to breathe through the mouth or chew gum during takeoff. Likewise, yawning and deep breathing can help eliminate the sensation.

4. Common cold and allergic rhinitis

The common cold is a common viral infection of the nose and throat. The congestion and inflammation of the upper airway can obstruct the removal of secretions and increase pressure, so that the person’s nose and ears may feel stuffy.

Allergic rhinitis is an inflammatory disorder of the nasal mucosa after exposure to an allergen that affects between 10 to 15% of the world’s population, according to statistics. The hypersensitivity reaction promotes the release of histamine, producing the following symptoms:

  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Stuffy ears
  • Runny nose
  • A reduced sense of smell
  • Itchy nose and throat

5. Sinusitis

Sinusitis is an inflammation of the mucosa of the sinuses. These are air-filled cavities that act as filters of the upper airway.

In sinusitis, congestion and mucus accumulation compromises the air exchange of the Eustachian tube and causes the sensation of blocked ears. This condition is usually caused by viruses, although it can also be caused by some bacteria.

Other symptoms include nasal congestion, facial pain, headaches, a cough and nasal discharge. In most cases, sinusitis disappears automatically after several days, so medical treatment is symptomatic.

6. Otitis

Otitis is nothing more than an infection and inflammation of the ear. The most common form of presentation is otitis media, as a result of obstruction of the Eustachian tube.

Ear congestion creates the sensation of blocked ears and other symptoms such as the following:

  • Low-grade fever
  • Pain in the ears
  • General malaise
  • Discharge of purulent fluid
  • Itching inside the ear

Studies estimate that 70 to 80% of children under 6 years of age have developed an ear infection. The most common causative agents are Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae. Treatment varies according to the type of otitis, with antibiotics always being the mainstay.

7. Labyrinthitis

Labyrinthitis refers to inflammation of the bony labyrinth, an anatomical structure located in the inner ear and responsible for balance. The main causes are of infectious origin due to localized invasion or migration from the middle ear. It can be serous or purulent.

This is a common problem, in which people may feel blocked ears, intense dizziness, and vertigo. There may also be tinnitus and partial hearing loss.

There’s currently no definitive treatment for labyrinthitis. However, an early professional approach and treatment can slow down the evolution of the disease and alleviate the symptoms.

8. Throat problems

Inflammation of the pharynx, or pharyngitis, is a common discomfort that can lead to the sensation of clogged up ears. People typically report pain, itching, and dryness in the throat.

In some patients, pharyngitis may progress to cause discomfort in the ears due to nerve involvement, or cause otitis by extension, according to experts. In viral forms, antipyretic and anti-inflammatory drugs are used to relieve the symptoms.

The use of antibiotics is exclusively for bacterial infections.
A woman with pharyngitis.
Clogged ears are a symptom of pharyngitis, but not its main manifestation.

9. Cholesteatoma

This is a benign tumor or cyst that forms in the middle ear or mastoid region. The cholesteatoma usually gradually increases in size and may even compress adjacent structures and destroy the middle ear.

Symptoms of this condition include the following:

  • Decreased hearing acuity in one ear
  • A sensation of blocked ears
  • The outflow of serous fluid
  • Chronic pain
  • Dizziness

Research suggests that chronic otitis media is the most common cause of cholesteatoma. Definitive treatment is surgical, however, there are several approaches to reduce symptomatology and improve quality of life.

10. Acoustic neuroma

Acoustic neuroma, also called vestibular schwannoma, is a benign tumor that forms on the vestibular nerve. This nerve travels from the inner ear to the brainstem and is responsible for maintaining balance. Affected individuals may experience ringing in the ears, feeling stuffy, and unsteadiness when walking.

In addition, the condition may cause progressive, unilateral hearing loss, weakness, and numbness in the face. Medical examination, audiometry, and imaging methods are helpful in diagnosing this disease.

Surgical removal is recommended in large accelerated growth tumors.

11. Bruxism

This is a disorder in which the person gnashes, grinds, and clenches their teeth unconsciously. This condition can occur during the day or at night, being frequent during sleep. The tension of the jaw muscles can make the ears feel clogged.

In general, bruxism should be treated by a dentist. Likewise, it’s crucial to see a medical specialist for a comprehensive evaluation in search of the root cause.

12. Meniere’s syndrome

Meniere’s syndrome is one of the best-known vertiginous diseases worldwide, although not the most frequent. It’s characterized by recurrent episodes of vertigo, decreased hearing acuity, tinnitus, and a sensation of blocked ears.

Research estimates a prevalence in a country such as Spain of 75 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, being more frequent in women in their 30s. This condition has no cure, but can be treated with medication that can alleviate the symptoms. Affected persons should avoid stress, lack of sleep, caffeine, and alcohol.

When to seek medical attention?

In most cases, feeling clogged and blocked ears is a temporary symptom that resolves on its own. However, the persistence of this symptom could warn of an ear disease that requires professional attention.

Other warning signs that require medical attention as soon as possible are the following:

  • A sudden loss of balance
  • Persistent ear pain
  • Hearing loss or deafness
  • The outflow of purulent discharge or blood

The causes of feeling clogged ears are varied. Lumps, earwax, and water in the ears are the most common and can be easily solved.

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