01 September 2020

Do you often have the feeling of having a clogged ear? Most of the time, it disappears after a few hours or days, but sometimes it can persist and be symptomatic of an ENT disorder. The following paragraphs explain the possible causes of this symptom and how to remedy it, depending on your circumstances.

Several factors can cause the ear to feel blocked: they occur either on the outer ear or in the inner ear.

1/ Obstruction of the ear canal (outer)

Cerumen impaction: This results from the buildup of wax in the inner ear canal and can cause pain and hearing loss. Rather than cleaning your ears with a cotton swab, which risks pressing on the wax more, increasing the pain, and causing an imbalance in the pressure on both sides of the eardrum, use specialized drops from the pharmacy instead. An appointment with an ENT specialist may be necessary if the blockage persists.

Foreign objects: This can be a forgotten cotton ball, an insect, etc. If it’s sufficient to soak the bit of cotton to get it out, it’s more complicated for other “foreign bodies.” Using a pointy object would be a very bad idea, since you risk damaging your ear canal or your eardrum, not to mention the importance of hygiene. It’s more sensible to consult a doctor.

Water buildup: You should remove the liquid trapped in the ears as soon as possible, since it encourages infections. There are several ways to do this quickly: the Valsalva manoeuvre (blocking your nose with your fingers and blowing while keeping your mouth closed and tilting your head to the side of the blocked ear), drying your ears with a clean cloth or a hair dryer, pouring in a few drops of a mixture of vinegar and isopropanol, sleeping on the side of the blocked ear, or chewing gum.

A quick note for swimmers: They often suffer from otitis and other infections because of this problem, hence the interest in wearing custom earplugs or a perfectly waterproof swimming cap while swimming.

2/ Obstruction of the Eustachian tubes (inner)

Sudden changes in altitude: Known as barotrauma, this phenomenon is often observed in the mountains, on airplanes, or during scuba diving. The reason for this is that our tissues have difficulty adjusting to the external pressure exerted on our bodies in these environments. In addition, people who often fly in airplanes as well as flight attendants frequently suffer from what’s called “aero-otitis media.”

If your ears become blocked on an airplane or while hiking, you can wait for the feeling to disappear on its own, chew gum, or do the Valsalva manoeuvre (but don’t abuse it or else you’ll damage your eardrums).

Irritants: Certain allergies or exposure to toxic fumes (chemicals, tobacco) can also cause a blocked ear sensation.

Cold and flu: This symptom can also be an adaptation of the body during viral and bacterial infections. To prevent mucous (which is overproduced when you have a cold) from reaching the ears, the Eustachian tubes swell up. Since air can no longer pass through, the pressure in the ear becomes imbalanced, which results in hearing loss that disappears as soon as the amount of mucous returns to normal. To quickly decongest your airways and unclog your ears, a steam bath with essential oils (eucalyptus, lavender) can be highly effective.

When should you consult a doctor?

If the blocked ear feeling persists or if your symptoms get worse (fever, pain, tinnitus) after several days, you probably have an infection. Consult your doctor to confirm the diagnosis and treat it on time. Ear infections shouldn’t be taken lightly, as they can become serious and cause irreversible hearing loss.

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Aimé Masliah

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