Ear congestion is a frustrating experience. It can lead to you feeling off-balance, disoriented, and to difficulties with your hearing. It is important to do what you can to unblock your ears as soon and as safely as possible.
Knowing the causes and symptoms of your ear congestion
There are actually different types and causes of ear congestion.
- The most common one is wax build-up. This is sometimes also referred to as cerumen blockage, which is the technical term for earwax. Though wax is perfectly natural, and is actually part of how the ear protects itself, too much of it is not good and can lead to impaired hearing and ear function. Too much of it leads to it compacting inside the ear canal and it can have a notable impact on your hearing and feeling of wellbeing.
- Though less frequently the reason for blockages in the ears, allergies can also cause ear congestion. Pollen and dust mites can irritate the tiny hairs inside the ear canal, which leads to inflammation.
- The third notable cause for issues with your ears feeling clogged is if you suffer from eustachian tube dysfunction. This is quite rare, but you need to get your ears seen by a specialist if this is an issue for you. Eustachian tube dysfunction is a medical condition in which the tubes that connect the middle of your ear to your throat become blocked.
- A common cold can also cause our ears to feel blocked, usually as part of an overall feeling of being ‘clogged up’ in your sinuses.
- You may also have an ear infection that will need careful attention. Infections lead to inflammation in the ears and when this happens the effect is to feel pressure and clogging inside your ears.
As well as the cause, your symptoms may also vary, ranging from impaired hearing, pain in the ears, a general feeling of things being muffled, and sometimes dizziness and a feeling of being off-balance.
Determining the cause of your ears being clogged is important, as the treatments may vary. If you have an infection, for example, you may need an antibiotic prescribed by a medical professional. If, however, it is just the effects of a cold, treating the symptoms of the cold will usually help the ears too.
Treating Ear Congestion with Home Remedies
Outer ear cleaning and ear drops
Whatever approach you take to your ears, remember that they are extremely sensitive. When they are blocked and we are frustrated, it can be easy to forget that. The old saying, ‘Don’t put anything bigger than your elbow inside your ear’ is worth recalling! Too much manipulation or prodding will only make the wax that is in your ear more solid and compacted.
That said, though it is generally sensible to avoid inserting things deeply or sharply into your ear canal, you can still benefit from taking a bud or swab and very gently wiping around the entrance to the ear. If you are suffering from wax, then using ear drops – which are available from all pharmacies – can help. Be careful, however, not to overuse them or exceed the recommended number of drops, as the use of them can actually impede your hearing if you overload the ear. You can also use a few drops of warm olive oil, almond oil, or baby oil on a cotton swab. Apply this to the outside of the ear and leave it for 10-15 minutes before wiping off with a damp cloth.
Over time, the use of the oils will gently soften the wax, but this will not be an immediate fix, so use the oils very sparingly, or you could make the blockage worse.
Using steam and humidifiers
Steam is the option most people can readily have to hand, and even placing your ear over a bowl of warm water – not too hot, of course – and letting the steam enter your ear can help. When you use steam and humidifiers, the warm moisture helps to thin out the mucus, allowing it to drain more easily out of your ear. The effect of this is to reduce the amount of pressure in the ear, which lessens the feeling of being clogged up. In addition, the humidity can help keep your ear canals lubricated, preventing further blockages.
Gently pull the earlobe up and out
You can manipulate the ear gently by hand by pulling the earlobe a little. Do not use any sharp or extensive moves here, as the ear is highly sensitive and the inner parts of the ear are easily disturbed. In addition, with excessive movement you can actually further embed existing wax and push it further inside. If you swallow as you gently tug your earlobe, this can help to shift wax and create some airspace as the wax breaks.
You may, however, need to do this over a period of time. If you do not make a difference after a few movements, you are best to let the ear rest and try again later.
Yawning or chewing gum
Yawning produces a change in pressure within the eustachian tube, which can encourage the wax inside your ear to move and become dislodged. Similarly, chewing gum helps to create jaw movements which can lead to the same pressure change. Both of these activities can help the eustachian tube to open up and allow whatever is clogging up your ear to shift and hopefully allow in air.
Use an over-the-counter ear cleansing solution
Many such products can be found in pharmacies and they’re specifically designed to help reduce the build-up of wax.
That said, you are generally wise to use these products sparingly and not too often, as the ear has a natural protective layer that protects the eardrum and the other inner workings of the ear canal. Be careful to keep this natural protection as undisturbed as possible. Occasional use of cleansing solutions is unlikely to do harm, but do not become reliant on them, or you will keep your ear in a state of constant disturbance.
The usefulness of these cleansing solutions is that they come ready-made, are easily available, and they do not require any heat or complex approach to being administered. They are non-invasive and generally very safe.
Unclogging the Ears with Medical Treatment
Earwax removal by an otolaryngologist (Ear Nose and Throat specialist)
This is usually performed in a private clinic by an ear specialist, or by your doctor. Though it sounds complex, it is actually very simple. The procedure typically involves the use of specialized tools, such as water jets, or a micro-vacuum, which the specialist inserts into the ear to break up and remove any stubborn wax buildup. Usually nowadays you will be shown the inside of your ear on a screen as this happens and will be able to see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the procedure.
It is a safe, thorough and highly effective treatment. Once you have had it performed, you will notice an instant difference to your ears and your hearing. The difference will often be remarkable!
Though it is not recommended to have this process performed too often, usually not more than once a year, there are few problems with it, so do not be shy about asking for this procedure if your ears are clogged.
Flushing the ear canal with warm water (ear irrigation)
This is a relatively common way to unclog ears. The warm water helps to break up any clogged material, especially wax. As long as it is done correctly and gently, it is a safe method. It also has the benefit of being cheap and easy to perform. Usually this procedure will be done by an ear specialist, however, so that the force of the irrigation is accurate and the control of the process is secure. It can be too awkward to try at home, and the wrong approach could be unsafe.
Taking prescription medicines
It is rare to have to have a prescription for clogged ears, but if there is an infection and your ears are in pain, do see a doctor. If the symptoms last unduly long, typically more than a week, it is wise to seek some medical advice.
Preventing Ear Congestion
Avoiding water buildup in the ears
Absolutely avoid swimming in dirty water or in stagnant pools where the water is not flowing through. Such waters are likely to cause bacteria to settle in your ear canal and lead to an infection and clogging.
Similarly, if you’re doing activities in which you’ll be exposed to large amounts of water, like diving or kayaking, make sure you wear earplugs to prevent any water from entering your ears.
Finally, always make sure to dry your ears thoroughly after showering. Doing so will help keep your ear canals clear of moisture, ultimately reducing the risk of a blockage.
Regularly cleaning the ears with a soft cloth
One way to help is to regularly clean them with a soft cloth. For instance, after showering or swimming, use a soft cloth to gently dry your ears and remove any excess water that might have collected. This is especially important for those who have had ear infections, as it can help prevent a recurrence.
In fact, a gentle wipe with a warm damp cloth around the ear is widely advised, as it helps to rid the ear of dead skin cells and micro-debris that can gather in the outer ear and eventually move to the ear canal, where it can join with wax to create blockages and clogging.
Clogging in the ear is usually temporary and is not often a sign of a major problem. The treatments we have outlined will almost always help. But of course if you have persistent or recurring symptoms and are worried about your hearing, you must absolutely see an ear specialist. Our ears are too often undervalued, so look after them!