5 reasons your ear is blocked and how to fix it

Dec, 08, 2022

We all know what a blocked or clogged ear feels like. From affecting your hearing to distorting sounds and even making you feel dizzy, blocked ears can completely disrupt daily life. But handling a blocked ear in the right way can make a world of difference to your experience and prevent your ears from becoming damaged in the process.

While there’s a range of different ways to deal with blockages, you must understand the cause of your blocked ear in a bid to fix it. Here we explore the different causes of a blocked ear, and the tips and tricks that can be used to clear each type of blockage.  

Causes of a blocked ear and how to clear it

1. Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD)

The eustachian tube is the small canal that runs from either ear to the back of the nose and upper throat. These tubes have the job of equalising pressure and draining built-up mucus from your nose or throat.

Muffled ears can occur when the pressure in the middle ear is uneven, and this is when the eustachian tube would step in to do its job. But sometimes things occur that stop the tube from doing this. These can include:

  • A swelling-induced blockage – when a cold, flu or sinus infection is in motion, the eustachian tubes swell and cause the tubes of the inner ear to become blocked. This gets in the way of the eustachian tube from draining the mucus and equalising the pressure.
  •  Physical blockage – in rarer cases, an overgrowth in tissue at the back of the nose can block the opening of the eustachian tubes.
  • A ruptured eardrum – as a tear in the thin tissue that separates your inner and middle ear, a ruptured eardrum can be caused by a buildup of fluids, loud sounds, foreign objects in the ear, head trauma, ear infections and severe changes in air pressure.

If the blockage doesn't clear, there is a dysfunction of the tube, and you should seek medical attention. For cold and infection-based blockages, medication may be prescribed by a GP.

2. Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection)

As a super sensitive part of the ear, the middle ear sits between the eardrum and the oval window. Its main role is to transmit sound from the outer ear to the inner ear, where three tiny bones transform vibrations into sounds.

When a sinus infection, allergies, or an illness causes the eustachian tubes to block, fluid can build up further and affect the middle ear. A bacterial sinus infection can also spread to the middle ear, causing swelling, fluid buildup, and infection.

Known as otitis media, this condition is usually related to ear pain and pressure. The good news is that this condition usually clears up on its own, but sometimes medication will need to be prescribed by a GP.

3. Ear Wax Blockage

Even though ear wax naturally occurs in our ears to protect them from water, bacteria, fungi and other elements, sometimes we can experience excess buildup. Known as excessive ear wax or impacted cerumen, the symptoms can include pain in the ear, itchiness and dizziness.

Normally when the ear is functioning soundly, the ear wax produced will be pushed towards the outer part of the ear where it’s washed away. If ear wax builds up over time, it may harden and become difficult to clear, which makes ears even more prone to blockages and infections. Your best bet is to seek the help of a medical professional who can help remove the wax. 

4. Otitis Externa (Swimmer’s Ear)

Swimmer’s ear has put a spanner in everyone’s summer at least once or twice. This common infection is the inflammation of the canal between the eardrum and outer ear. Most commonly triggered by exposure to water or the over-cleaning of the ear, the symptoms of this condition include pain, reduced hearing, itchiness, pus in the ear canal, and buzzing.

The first consideration when it comes to treating swimmer’s ear is to establish whether its origins are fungal or bacterial. Once this has been determined, antibiotics or antifungals may be prescribed, and the ear is cleaned by a medical professional.

5. Barotrauma (Aeroplane ear)

Like we mentioned above, if the pressure inside of your ear is different to the pressure outside of the body for an extended period, severe damage can occur to your eardrum. Known as barotrauma, this is a common condition for people who scuba dive, fly regularly or drive or hike at high altitudes. Barotrauma triggers dizziness, pain and pressure in the ears. A severe case can also rupture the eardrums and lead to hearing loss and nosebleeds.

The best way to deal with this condition is to prevent it before it causes damage. For example, you might want to chew gum on flights to allow your eustachian tube to open and release the pressure. For most mild cases, the symptoms will resolve on their own – but serious damage can require medical attention. 

What to avoid when clearing a blocked ear

While there are a few safe at-home remedies for unblocking your ears, it’s important to remember that the ear is an extremely sensitive part of the body. Whether a cotton swab or your fingers, you should never stick anything inside of your ears.

Simply using a warm, wet cloth on the outside should do the trick without causing any injuries to your inner ear.

When to seek further help

Although a blocked ear might not seem like a big deal, sometimes seeking support from a medical expert is the best way to go. With the tools and knowledge to remove ear wax safely, you should contact a professional if at-home remedies fail, if there’s no change in five days or if your symptoms become severe.

As an example of this, if muffled hearing becomes a complete loss of hearing, it’s time to call a professional right away. Another example is if irritation becomes severe pain.

Symptoms to contact a doctor to discuss include feeling of fullness in your ears, a sudden change in hearing, fever, dizziness, discharge or ringing in your ears

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