Blocked Ears - A Guide to Types, Causes & Treatment
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Got Blocked Ears? Here’s a Guide to Types, Causes And Treatment Options

blocked ears

Do your ears feel all bunged-up, clogged or full? It’s not a nice feeling but most people have gone through the experience at some point. But why does it happen, and can it be avoided? What should you do when your ears are blocked? Are there any home remedies or should you see an audiologist? Continue reading to find out! 

Unblocking Blocked Ears

Blocked ears can cause discomfort, annoyance and are an all-around uncomfortable sensation. It can make speech sound muffled and distorted giving you a sensation like your head is underwater. This can further diminish your ability to communicate properly as well as affect your balance. Persistently blocked ears may even be a health risk if untreated.

Symptoms and Causes

Most often, blocked ears occur suddenly and can be associated with other symptoms such as hearing loss, your own voice feeling like an echo in your head, ear pain, tinnitus, itchiness and or dizziness. 

Signs of ear blockages caused by wax build-up or infections may include:

  • Hearing loss in the affected ear
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
  • Ear discharge
  • Itchiness 
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vertigo 

There are many reasons blockage can occur, some more obvious than others. This guide will highlight the many reasons for blocked ears and safe management measures that can be enforced at home.

However, if the problem persists it is advisable to visit a medical professional for help. There are many ways to get relief, but it is important to get to the bottom of the cause before you do anything. Sometimes the feeling just goes away on its own, but not always. It can be a sign of more serious and permanent problems.

If your ears don’t unblock, it’s important to see your audiologist and get a hearing test to find out if you have a hearing loss and check each part of your hearing. 

 

 

Ear Canal Blockages

The most likely reason for ear fullness is a build-up of too much ear wax in your ear canals.  Ears are typically self-cleaning, and you generally don’t need to do anything to keep them clear.  

Wax Build-Up

The glands on the skin of your outer ear produce a harmless waxy oil known as cerumen, which is commonly called earwax. Earwax is produced to clean and protect your ears from dust, foreign particles and microorganisms. It also keeps your ears moist and protects your ears from irritation. 

Usually, excess build-up of wax naturally finds its way out of the ear canal. The amount of wax produced by individuals can vary greatly much like sweat, some people may produce excess wax than others. 

When our ear canal accumulates more wax than necessary it can lead to a feeling of blocked ears. People using earplugs, such as hearing aids and noise plugs, are at a higher risk of wax issues since the natural falling of wax is prevented by the plugs used. 

Ears blocked with wax can cause a temporary hearing loss causing your ears to feel blocked. 

Caution must be taken if cleaning your ears at home as you may end up pushing the wax deeper into your ear canal. It is highly recommended to visit your local medical practitioner or audiologist for your wax removal. You may use ear drops to help soften the wax in the meantime.  

Swimmer’s ear

A swimmer’s ear can also block your ear canal. Water gets trapped behind a bend in your ear canal. Swimmer’s ear can usually be prevented and treated by using drops from the chemist.  The alcohol in the drops dries up the water. However, if the water gets stuck in the canal, it can become infected and extremely painful.   

Foreign Objects

Small foreign objects can also block the ear canal, anything from insects to pieces of food (yes, it’s possible!) and even small toys like beads and marbles.  It is advisable to get your GP to remove these objects rather than do it yourself.

Physical Blockage 

A physical blockage can also be created by our ears themselves. Bony growths or lumps can jut into the ear canal. These are common amongst swimmers and divers and usually do not cause a problem unless they grow bigger, to the point that they stop the movement of air, sound or even wax.  

Occasionally, ear surgery is needed to remove the larger bony growths.  

Remember the following:

  • Keep your ear canals clear if you can 
  • If your ears are blocked, check with your GP for trained medical staff to clean your ears 
  • See your audiologist to avoid loss of hearing 
  • Get your ears checked and have a hearing test regularly 

Note: Don’t use cotton buds as this will force wax deeper into your ears and can cause permanent damage to the inner ear.  

 

woman with hearing aids

Ear Blockages Behind the Eardrum  

Eustachian Tubes (ET) are small canals that connect the back of your nose to the middle part of your ears. They are responsible for maintaining the pressure of your ears with the outside pressure and draining fluid from the middle ear. 

When the canals fail to do so it leads to a Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD). The major symptom of ETD is blocked ears. Most people only notice this when they go up a mountain or during take-off on a plane. The ET is trying to equalise the air pressure to keep the eardrum balanced and working. 

ETD can be caused due to many reasons such as nasal congestion, sinus infection and allergies. These conditions can cause inflammation and mucus blockage in the ET causing it to block. Additional reasons are changes in altitude from flying, hiking, riding an elevator and other similar experiences. 

The ET can cause a sensation of blocked ears for several reasons:

  • The ET can be very short, narrow and/or horizontal and hence prone to blockage. Babies and children have short ETs but as they get older (6 to 8 years) all the tubes and structures will grow to adult size. Some people can even be prone to this problem for life.
  • The adenoids can also block the ET. The adenoids are like tonsils but are found at the base of the ET, so when swollen they can block the ET. Adenoids are affected by breathing problems, allergies or cold and flu. Even being in polluted air including cigarette smoke can congest the ET and adenoids.  
  • Barotrauma happens with any sudden change in altitude which stops the ET from working. This is usually thought of as something affecting deep-sea divers, but it also happens whenever we get in an aeroplane for a flight. This can be very uncomfortable, even painful.  
  • Jaw problems can also affect the ET as they are physically close to a problem when the jaw disturbs the ET.

 

What happens if the ET remains blocked?

If the balance of pressure on either side of the eardrum is disrupted, eventually, this can create a vacuum-like effect. Fluid from the lining of the space behind the eardrum builds up.  Most of us think of this as an ear infection although the fluid is not always infected. This fluid reduces eardrum movement and can cause a temporary loss of hearing. Generally, the thicker the fluid gets, the more hearing loss.  

This is known as glue ear which causes short to medium term hearing loss. Your doctor can consider some medications including antibiotics, anti-allergy treatment or decongestants. You also need to have a hearing test to find out if there is any hearing loss, especially for children as this may impact their learning and development.

What can you do to unblock your ears?

Popping the ears can help relieve the blocked sensation and ventilate your ears. A humidifier increases the moisture in the air which may also help open the ET. There are many strategies in which you can effectively and safely pop your ears at home which are listed below: 

  • Yawn: Yawning helps open the ET. Doing so multiple times may relieve the blocked feeling.
  • Swallow: Swallowing can help activate some muscles responsible for opening the ET. Sipping on water, sucking on hard candy or chewing gum can exacerbate the need to swallow. 
  • Valsalva manoeuvre: Take a deep breath and pinch your nose. Keeping your mouth shut, blow out very gently (like you’re blowing a balloon). This helps open the ET. It’s best to perform this action with caution to prevent further damage to your ears.  
  • Toynbee manoeuvre: To perform this manoeuvre, take a deep breath and pinch your nose. Keeping your mouth closed try swallowing. It may help to do so with a mouthful of water. 

If these home-based strategies mentioned above don’t help to relieve your blocked ears, it may be worthwhile to have a comprehensive hearing test performed by your local audiologist. Additionally, you may seek the help of your GP for the appropriate management. 

 

Ear Blockages in the Inner Ear  

Unlike the conditions mentioned above – which are preventable, treatable and often reversible, some kinds of ear blockages can be long-term. A sudden permanent hearing loss can occur with no warning signs and usually will affect one ear only. You may also have other symptoms including a spinning sensation and vomiting, ear noises like a ringing or buzzing, fever or flu-like symptoms.   

This type of problem involves the inner ear – where your organ for hearing and the hearing nerve connects to our brain. This can be difficult to pick up as the signs can be very like the conditions already mentioned earlier.  

Unfortunately,  treatments are less likely to cure or fix the problem. There are some specialised medications that on occasion can help, but these need to be given quickly, within hours of the sudden loss of hearing. For most people, it takes time to rule out more common problems, making it too late to try treatments.  

Seeing an Ear Nose and Throat Specialist (ENT) is vital to make sure there are no underlying medical causes. This will also involve getting further medical tests and a complete hearing test.  The loss of hearing often can be helped using hearing aids but specialist advice is needed for sudden permanent hearing loss so an experienced clinical audiologist should always be consulted.

Note: Seek urgent specialist medical and audiological treatment if you suspect the blockage to be related to a part of the ear that lies deeper than the ear canal or Eustachian tubes.

Wrapping it up

There are many reasons why your ears can be blocked. It’s a sign that somewhere along the ear and hearing pathways, something is not right. Often, it’s simple and easy to fix an issue like wax build-up in the ear canals. But occasionally it can be a sign of a more serious condition.  Finding out the best way to approach the ear blockage is not always straightforward.  

That’s the reason why any ear blockage needs to be explored together with specialists in the area. This includes your audiologist, who can check all parts of the ear and find out if there is a hearing loss, as well as your GP and at times an Ear Nose and Throat Specialist for diagnosing serious ear conditions.

To book an appointment with your trusted, local Attune Hearing clinic, including a free 15-minute hearing assessment, visit our website or give us a call at 1300 736 702.

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