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

Do your ears feel obstructed, clogged or full? It’s an unpleasant sensation that most of us have experienced at some point. 

But why do your ears clock and can it be avoided? What should you do when your ears are plugged? And when should you see a GP or audiologist? Continue reading to find out! 

What Causes “Blocked Ears”?

There are many reasons blockage can occur, some more obvious than others. 

If your ears are blocked, this may be caused by:

  1. An obstruction of your ear canals

    1. Wax Build-Up
    2. Swimmer’s Ear
    3. Foreign Objects
    4. Physical Blockage
  2. Blocked eustachian tubes (ET)

    1. Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD)
    2. A Short Eustachian Tube
    3. Adenoids Blocking the ET
    4. Barotrauma 
    5. Jaw Problems
  3. Conditions of the inner ear

ear

1. Blocked Ear Canals

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

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

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. T

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. 

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.

  • Foreign Objects

Tiny 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 

Our ears themselves can also create a physical blockage. 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.  

ear surgery

2. Blocked  Eustachian Tubes (ET)

Eustachian Tubes (ET) are small canals that connect the back of your nose to the middle part of your ears. 

 

The ET is responsible for equalising the air pressure and draining fluid from the middle ear, to keep the eardrum working. 

 

Sometimes, this mechanism doesn’t quite work. Here’s some reasons why:

  • Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD)

Blocked eustachian tubes are referred to as eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD). 

ETD can be caused by nasal congestion, sinus infection and allergies. 

When the ETs are inflamed or clogged with mucus, you’re likely to experience hearing difficulties, and a feeling of fullness.

Many people also notice this when they go up a mountain, during take-off on a plane, riding an elevator and other similar experiences.

  • A Short Eustachian Tube

ETs can be very short, narrow or horizontal and hence prone to blockage. 

Babies and children have short ETs but all the tubes and structures will grow to adult size as they get older (6 to 8 years). 

Some people can even be prone to this problem for life.

  • Adenoids Blocking the ET

The adenoids are like tonsils but are found at the base of the ET, so when swollen, they can stop the ET. Adenoids are affected by breathing problems, allergies or colds and flu. Even being in polluted air, including cigarette smoke, can congest the ET and adenoids.  

  • Barotrauma 

Barotrauma happens with any sudden change in altitude, which stops the ET from working. 

This is usually 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

Jaw issues can also affect the ET as they are physically close to a problem when the jaw disturbs the ET.

Jaw Problems

3. Blocked Inner Ears 

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 connect 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.

Blocked Ears – Symptoms To Watch Out For

Blocked ears can cause discomfort, annoyance and are an all-around uncomfortable sensation.

Most often, blocked ears occur suddenly and can be accompanied by symptoms such as:

  • Sudden hearing loss or muffled hearing 
  • Your voice sounds like an echo in your head
  • Ear pain, discharge and itchiness
  • Ringing in the ear (Tinnitus)
  • Dizziness and headaches
  • Fever

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. 

Sometimes the feeling just goes away on its own, but not always. It can be a sign of more severe and permanent problems.

Try-At-Home Tips For Unblocking Clogged or Full Ears 

If your ears feel plugged, try this to clear your ears and open your eustachian tubes: 

  • Swallow
  • Yawning 
  • Chew gum 

If this doesn’t do the trick, do the following:

  1. Inhale to take a deep breath.
  2. Then use your fingers to pinch your nostrils closed.
  3. Keeping your mouth shut, gently exhale through your nose.
  4. Keep squeezing your nostrils as you do this. 

Hear a popping noise as you do this? Then your ears should be unplugged. 

If you have no success with these options, try the following to unblock your ears: 

  • A nasal decongestant
  • Topical nasal steroids
  • Ventilation tubes (only in severe cases)

However, if the problem persists for more than two weeks, it is advisable to see a medical professional for help. There are many ways to get relief, but it is essential to get to the bottom of the cause before you do anything.

If these home-based strategies don’t help 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. 

Remain Blocked

What If Your Ears Remain 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.

To Avoid Blocked Ear Canals, Remember

  • 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.  

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 correct. 

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 severe 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 severe 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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