Why do my ears feel clogged?

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 for no good reason. Why is sound muffled when there doesn’t appear to be anything inside your ear canal? Here are four of the most common reasons why your ears might feel clogged.

Impacted earwax 

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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:

  • A feeling that the ear is clogged
  • An earache
  • Partial hearing loss
  • Tinnitus, or ringing in the ear
  • Itching, odor or discharge
  • Coughing

The only way to know for sure -- and to remove the earwax safely -- is to see a physician or your hearing healthcare professional. Please note that it is never appropriate to try and remove the earwax yourself. 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.

Fluid in the ear

Avid swimmers are likely too familiar with this painful condition; however, even non-swimmers can suffer from fluid in the ear, too. Fluid can develop in the ear for a couple of different reasons:

Ear infection -- children and adults who develop middle ear infections 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.

Swimming or bathing -- here’s 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 become trapped inside the Eustachian tubes from swimming, bathing or moist environments. If it does, try these simple techniques to encourage it to drain.

  • Tilt your head sideways and pull the earlobe gently.  
  • Use a warm compress. This helps open up the Eustachian tubes so water can drain naturally.
  • Yawn, chew or hold your nose and blow gently.

Sinus pressure

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.

Fortunately, most hearing loss caused by sinusitis 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, see your family doctor. They can determine the cause of your discomfort and prescribe medication to alleviate the pain and swelling.

Noise damage

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. 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:

  • Wear earplugs or other hearing protective devices when you’re involved in an activity where sound measures more than 85 decibels (dB).
  • Turn down the volume on the television, car radio or any personal electronic device with which you use ear buds.
  • If you can’t protect your hearing from the noise or reduce the volume, move as far away from it as possible.

Before trouble starts...

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. Here’s a tip: find a clinic in your community 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.