It’s one of the worst parts of flying: You finally hit that cruising altitude, and suddenly, your hearing is all muffled. You’ve got ear congestion — that feeling that your ears are somehow plugged up.
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Family medicine specialist Matthew Goldman, MD, explains what causes your ears to feel clogged (it’s not just air travel!) and shares the safest ways to “pop” them to relieve the pressure.
Why your ears get plugged up
Between the area behind your eardrum and the back of your nose and throat is a tube called the Eustachian tube. You’ve got two of them — one behind each ear.
“This tube helps to maintain balanced air pressure between the area behind the eardrum and the area outside of the eardrum,” Dr. Goldman explains. “Sometimes, when there is an imbalance between the air pressure within the Eustachian tube and the pressure outside of the eardrum, we may feel a plugged-up sensation.”
This is called Eustachian tube dysfunction, and it can bring on other symptoms, too:
- Pain inside of your ear.
- Changes in your hearing.
- Feeling dizzy.
- Ringing in your ears (tinnitus).
Dr. Goldman explains some of the most common causes of ear congestion.
Changes in air pressure
“Sudden pressure changes like driving upward into the mountains and scuba diving can also create this sensation,” Dr. Goldman says. As the pressure changes around you, the air pressure inside of your inner ears tries to adjust along with it.
When infected fluid gets trapped behind your eardrum, it can swell and bulge, leading to pain and that plugged-up feeling. And though ear infections (otitis media) can happen to anyone, they’re most common in kids ages 8 and under. Kids also have narrower Eustachian tubes than adults, which makes them especially susceptible to blockage.
An infection in the lining of your ear canal, known as swimmer’s ear (otitis external), can also cause blocked ears. This is an infection of your external ear, rather than your middle ear.
“The ear canal leading to the eardrum becomes irritated and swollen, causing the sensation of the ear feeling plugged,” Dr. Goldman says. Swimmer’s ear is often accompanied by other symptoms, too, like pain, itchiness and pus.
Your Eustachian tube connects your ears to your sinuses, so whenever you’re experiencing a condition that affects your sinuses, blocked ears are a potential symptom. “Sinus infections can change the pressure behind your eardrum,” Dr. Goldman notes.
Achoo! Allergies come with a lot of unpleasant symptoms, and you can add plugged-up ears to the list. They can affect your sinuses, too, inflaming your Eustachian tubes, as well as plugging them up with mucus.
Eustachian tube problems
In some cases, you may have a condition that directly affects your Eustachian tubes. “Rarely, growths may affect the Eustachian tubes, which can create issues,” Dr. Goldman says, “and being born with abnormally shaped Eustachian tubes can also be a cause.”
How to ‘pop’ your ears safely
Having plugged-up ears is an annoying problem at best and a frustrating, painful one at worst. Sometimes, a clogged ear will go away by itself, but Dr. Goldman shares a few ways you can try to relieve the pressure and get your ears to pop.
1. Try these two breathing maneuvers
You may not know the medical terms for these two actions, but if you’ve ever had clogged ears, they’re probably among the first things you’ve tried. The pressure these two maneuvers create can help open your Eustachian tubes.
- The Valsalva maneuver: Close your mouth and pinch your nostrils closed. Then, breathe out forcefully — but don’t let any air escape through your mouth or nose.
- The Toynbee maneuver: Close your mouth, pinch your nostrils closed and swallow.
Research shows that these two methods have about the same success rate at unplugging, or “popping,” your ears.
2. Equalize the pressure
Your Eustachian tubes are typically closed, opening when you perform activities like swallowing and yawning. So intentionally doing these things may help unclog your ears, especially if there’s no underlying cause like allergies or an infection.
“There are different ways to equalize the pressure that creates the plugged-up sensation,” Dr. Goldman says, including:
- Chewing gum.
3. Use a saline spray
Using a nasal spray can relieve sinus blockage and inflammation, which can ultimately help unplug your ears. Just be sure you’re using the nasal spray correctly by aiming it toward the back of your nose rather than toward your septum (the middle of your nose).
4. Address the underlying condition
If you’re experiencing something like swimmer’s ear or allergies, you can best treat your plugged-up ears by treating the medical condition that’s causing them.
“Depending on the cause, antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays and occasionally surgery may be needed to help manage and/or treat the root of the problem and/or mask the symptoms until the cause has resolved,” Dr. Goldman says.
Have you ever known someone who gets recurrent ear infections and has to have ear tubes put in? This is one of a few ways doctors can address chronic Eustachian tube dysfunction, which is common in children.
When to call your doctor
“Most of the time, these are all safe and effective methods,” Dr. Goldman says, “but depending on the cause, these methods be unsafe and could even cause damage.”
If you’re traveling in high altitude changes or know you’re in the midst of an allergic flare-up, your clogged ears likely aren’t a problem and should resolve pretty quickly. But clogged ears that persist or are accompanied by other symptoms can indicate a more serious issue. Pay attention to issues like:
- Hearing loss
In these cases, it’s time to see your doctor, who’ll be able to determine the root cause of your issues and figure out a treatment plan.