Man sitting on an airplane with his hands over his ears

What Causes Clogged Ears?

Published: February 8, 2023

Updated: February 9, 2023

Does it feel like there’s a cotton ball stuck in your ear, or the sounds around you are muffled or hard to hear? Clogged ears, or hearing loss, might be causing that sensation. But what causes clogged ears and is there something you can do about it?   

What Causes Clogged Ears?

If you have clogged ears, it means that there is a blockage in the hearing pathway. This most commonly indicates conductive hearing loss, which occurs when the outer and middle parts of your ear are unable to carry sounds well enough to the innermost parts of your hearing system. 

The feeling of “clogged ears” mostly occurs suddenly, but may occur gradually over time, affecting either one ear or both ears. Fortunately, conductive hearing loss is treatable but it does require the assistance of a hearing professional to ensure that the loss does not progress and become something more permanent.

Clogged ears or muffled hearing may be a symptom of the following common conditions:

Earwax Build-Up 

Ear wax is a substance that is naturally produced by the ear to keep it clean and protected from foreign particles, such as debris or small insects, that may cause damage if they go deeper into the ear. The ear is self-cleaning and often does not require the wax in the ear canal to be removed. 

Sometimes excess wax may be produced, which may lead to a build-up within the ear canal. Symptoms include pain and discomfort, a clogged ear feeling, and reduced hearing, as it may block the travel of sound from the outer ear to the rest of the hearing system. Do not try to remove the wax yourself, as it could result in an injury of the delicate ear regions. Contact your nearest audiologist instead.

Foreign Body or Growths 

The ear is directly exposed to the outside environment through the opening leading into the ear canal. Small objects from the outside environment may become lodged in the narrow ear canal. Growths may also develop within the ear canal due to irritation of the canal or simply on their own own. 

Symptoms include pain and discomfort, a clogged ear feeling, and reduced hearing, as it may block the ability for sound to travel from the outer ear to the rest of the hearing system. If there is a growth, it would need to be removed and sent for further testing. Do not attempt to remove a foreign body or a growth yourself, it could result in an injury of the delicate ear regions. Instead, contact your nearest healthcare provider.

What Causes Clogged Ears?

Ear Infection

The middle ear is connected to the throat by a tube-shaped structure that may swell or become blocked due to an infection caused by bacteria or a virus. The purpose of this tube is to drain fluid and keep the pressure in the middle ear equal to that of the environment. The blockage or swelling may result in a build-up of fluid in the middle ear chamber. If left untreated, it may cause damage to the eardrum and middle ear structures. 

Symptoms include fever, pain, headaches, fullness in the ear, and sounds being muffled. Ear infections can clear up on their own, however, it is better to contact your medical provider for further advice.

Allergies, the Common Cold, and Sinus Infections

When we breathe in, contaminants and allergens from the environment travel down into our lungs, but can also affect the tube connecting the throat to the ear and cause feelings of a clogged ear and muffled hearing. Medication to alleviate the symptoms of colds, allergies, and sinus infections will improve the feeling of a clogged ear over time.

Trauma 

An injury to the sides of the head caused by falling or being struck by an object may cause damage to the eardrum causing it to tear, or may cause damage to the small bones in the ear behind the eardrum, causing them to dislocate from each other. This might result in the feeling of clogged ears or hearing loss and affect the travel of sound to the innermost parts of the ear due to the disruption from the damage. 

An injury to the side of the head may also cause damage to the part of the brain responsible for making sense of the sounds we hear and may affect the quality and clarity of how we perceive sounds. Symptoms include pain, discharge of blood and fluid, and sounds being muffled. Symptoms are noticeable and you would be able to hear the muffled quality of sounds immediately, due to the nature of the injury. If you have not received medical attention for your injury, contact your nearest healthcare provider.

Noise Exposure 

Prolonged exposure or sudden exposure to loud noise can cause the cells in the innermost parts of the ear to swell or cause damage to the eardrum and bones in the ear, affecting the way that sound travels through the hearing system. Symptoms would include a loss of hearing ability and, if the middle ear structures are damaged, would include pain, discharge of blood and fluid, and sounds being muffled. 

If you are not using hearing protection or have not received medical attention for your injury, make it a point to contact your nearest hearing healthcare provider for hearing protection devices, and to check the extent of the hearing loss to determine which treatment method is necessary. 

Mild Altitude Sickness 

When you’re flying in an airplane, the pressure in the outside environment is different from the pressure your ears are accustomed to on the ground. The difference in pressure causes sharp pain in the ear, along with clogged ear symptoms. This occurs as the ear tries to adjust to the change in pressure. The feeling of fullness and pain may be reduced by chewing gum which helps to open up the middle ear chamber. When on the ground, your ears may suddenly “pop”, releasing the feeling of a clogged ear. Holding your nose and blowing out slowly may also help release the clogged ear feeling. 

At the end of the day, what causes clogged ears is usually a build-up of wax or a more serious underlying issue such as head trauma, leading to conductive hearing loss. If the clogged ear feeling is accompanied by other symptoms such as ringing in the ear, loss of balance, nausea, and pain that does not improve, it is important to contact your healthcare provider for further advice.

Why choose Lexie Hearing?

Lexie Hearing believes in affordable and accessible hearing healthcare solutions for everyone, and strives to bring high-quality and feature-rich hearing aids to those who need them most. Lexie Hearing also offers fully-remote ongoing support if you have any trouble with your hearing aids, or if you simply want to chat with a Lexie Expert™ about your hearing loss, we are all ears! Make sure to visit the Lexie B2 hearing aids Powered by Bose page for more detail.

Image of post writer Robert de Wit.

Written by Robert de Wit

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