Blocked ears

When ears are feeling full

What you should know about causes, treatments & Co.

When we speed through a tunnel on a train, take off and land on a plane – we often feel pressure on our ears. This is a clear sign of just what a sensitive organ the ear is. Mild pressure in the ear is not dangerous, simply uncomfortable. However, what exactly happens inside the ear when pressure causes a blocked ear and the ear feels clogged and muffled? Here at Amplifon are happy to advise you on solutions for relieving blocked ear symptoms and provided information on our range of earplugs

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What exactly is a blocked ear?

A blocked ear can occur in one or both ears and is often described as the feeling of pressure in the ear or "a full ear". Patients frequently say that their left ear is blocked, their right ear is blocked or, more rarely, both.

The anatomical explanation

The Eustachian tube is responsible for equalizing the pressure in the ear.  Here we shall explain the role of the eardrum in detail. Lying deep within the ear canal, the eardrum serves to transmit the vibrations of sound to the sensitive organs of the middle and inner ear, and its elasticity enables it to seal the ear airtight. If the air pressure z. B. is changed by speed or altitude, the result is differing pressure conditions outside and inside the ear.

If eardrum bulges excessively due to over-pressure or under-pressure within the ear, then pain is caused and it feels like the ears are closing or blocking up. Indeed, patients frequently say, “my ear has been blocked for a month”, or “The pressure in my ears won’t go away.” To overcome this, we need to (involuntarily) equalize the pressure within the ear through the equalization of air via the Eustachian tube (also called ear trumpet, ear tuba or tuba auditory). This tube connects the inside of the ear with the nose and throat.

Chronic pressure on the ears

Constant pressure on both ears, likewise one-sided constant pressure in a single ear, may indicate occlusion of the tube or other pathologies. However, in some cases, certain exercises (e.g. the Valsalva manoeuvre) are all that’s required to free yourself of a chronic plugged ear. A common cause is a generally harmless tube ventilation disorder: if the ear tuba, i.e. the Eustachian tube, is too narrow, the resulting ventilation disorder may give rise to a continuous blocked ear.

This can be determined with a painless otoscopy (ear mirroring) exam, though. Indeed, with a small operation, the ear tuba can be expanded, thereby reducing susceptibility to middle ear infections. This is important as ventilation disorders within the ear can give rise to a warm, humid climate in the middle and inner ears, thereby encouraging viruses and bacteria to develop. 

If you have the impression that the pressure in your ears won't go away, don't hesitate to consult an ENT doctor. In most cases, they can help you quickly and easily.

Pressure on the ears in children

Following a cold or, indeed, even without one, children sometimes complain of pressure or dullness in their ears. This could be a tympanic effusion. Should you observe that your child’s hearing is becoming this could be the reason, so ask your paediatrician to take a closer look at the child's ears.

A tympanic effusion can usually be treated simply by inserting tympanic tubes. Even, as often occurs in many cases, it "grows" in later years, action should be taken at an early stage in order to avoid disturbances in language development and social problems.

Causes: Why your ear might be blocked

The causes of blocked ears may be many. If the feeling of pressure in the ear occurs without external factors, then it is usually caused by an infection. Earache pressure and, similarly, the feeling of a closed ear may arise when the eustachian tube is blocked, for example, due to the increased formation of mucus from a cold or an allergy (e.g. hay fever). In contrast to the changes in air pressure from outside previously described, pressure is often only created in one ear. 

Regardless of whether it is one-sided or in both ears: pay attention to typical, accompanying infection symptoms such as pressure in the head and ears and possibly fever and body aches. Ear pressure is often the first symptom of:

It is therefore clear that the sensation of pressure in the ear must always be carefully evaluated by a specialist ENT doctor who, through a direct vision of the ear - otoscopy - can identify the cause of the disorder and guide you to the proper course of therapy.

Blocked ear due to a cold

For many people, one of the initial symptoms of a cold is that the ear closes. If the cause of the pressure in your ears is a cold, your doctor will usually recommend using a nasal decongestant spray. In this way, if you experience a blocked ear during a cold, the previously described Eustachian tube, can be kept free with the aforementioned spray. 

The pressure in the ears when you have a cold is caused by the blockage in the middle ear, therefore it can no longer be adequately ventilated. The ear is closed and it is then that viruses and bacteria may have the opportunity to trigger a middle ear infection. It is for this reason you should keep your ears clear when you have a cold. If you feel pressure on your ears when you have a cold, take action, it may not yet be too late! 

In addition to decongestant nasal spray, inhaling also helps to activate mucus drainage and relieve ear pressure when you have a cold. To this end, if you manage to keep your nose clear, you have a good chance: if your ears close when you have a cold, an infection can be stopped.

Ear Infection

If the feeling of pressure in the ear occurs without external influences, such as a blocked ear after swimming, an infection such as a sinus infection (sinusitis) is usually the cause. Earache pressure, likewise, the feeling of a closed ear can also arise when the Eustachian tube is blocked, for example due to the increased formation of mucus with a cold or an allergy (e.g. hay fever). In contrast to changing air pressure from outside, this often only creates pressure in one ear. 

Earwax plug blocking the ear

If there is no pressure, but your hearing performance becomes increasingly poor, its origins be completely innocuous. A clogged feeling in the ear and dull hearing are commonly caused by plugs of earwax forming in the ear. A simple pug of earwax blocking the external ear is perhaps the most frequent cause of pressure in the ear itself. This phenomenon is the direct consequence of the presence of specific receptors (baroreceptors) in the external auditory canal. 

These receptors respond to pressure variations and the eventual accumulation of earwax and other debris (like dead skin, dust etc.) of the external auditory canal, can cause total closure of the canal, thereby determining a sensation of pressure in the ear and a reduction in hearing capacity. Hearing loss is transient because, by removing the earwax, the hearing returns as it was previously. 

If your ears are blocked with wax, specific ear rinses are available in chemists and pharmacies to loosen it. Likewise, your ENT doctor can remove particularly firm blockages. A less innocuous cause of ear blockage is stress which may, in fact, be a sign of impending hearing loss or tinnitus. If you think you have ear pressure from stress, act now: slow down and relax! Use relaxation techniques (e.g. autogenous training) and treat yourself to rest.

Pressure on the ears on the plane

The cabins aboard airplanes and high-speed trains are built in such a way that they almost completely exclude external pressure. Despite this, though, many people still experience pressure in their ears. Earplugs can be helpful for particularly sensitive ears (e.g. those of children). Due to their elasticity, they reduce pressure on the eardrum without pressing into the ear themselves. You can also prevent/eliminate ear pain after the flight. 

Chewing gum is a good tip to help equalize ear pressure when flying. If pressure in the ears persists after your flight has landed and ear equalization techniques are ineffective, decongestant nasal spray may be an effective solution. If pressure equalization in the ear is still not possible and the problem persists for more than two days, you should ask your ear, nose and throat doctor for advice.

The pressure on the ears is particularly sensitive after a flight if there was still water in the ear (e.g. that entered during swimming shortly before departure). It is then easier to get a middle ear infection. Here, too, children are more frequently affected. The best solution may be earplugs for swimming.

Pressure on the ears while diving

Human divers, without a natural protective shell as is found in nature, have to learn to cope with pressure. The pressure on the ears increases with every meter in diving depth. In order to prevent permanent damage to the ear, known as barotrauma, the resulting pressure on the eardrum must be relieved. To this end, when learning to dive, every diving student also learns how to equalize pressure.

Stress as a psychological cause

A less harmless cause of ear pressure is the pressure on the ears caused by stress. It can be a harbinger of imminent hearing loss or tinnitus. If you think your ears are getting squeezed from stress, pull the emergency brake. Apply relaxation techniques (e.g. autogenous training) and allow yourself to rest.

Rarely: Hearing loss

Of course, a “real” loss of hearing is also possible. To check your hearing performance. you can carry out an initial hearing test online here (manca hyperlink). Your Amplifon hearing care professional will be happy to carry out a non-binding, precise hearing test at your nearest branch. However, when in doubt, always contact an ear, nose and throat specialist to ascertain the causes of a reduced hearing performance.

Very rarely: Ménière's disease

Indeed, the feeling of a full ear is often interpreted as the subjective symptom of endolymphatic hydrops. This symptom both affects and is a key phenomenon of Meniere’s disease. It is caused by an increase in a liquid (endolymph), contained in very small quantities within the organ responsible for controlling balance (the labyrinth). When the endolymph increases in volume, it causes tinnitus, a reduction in hearing ability and also dizziness. This symptomatic triad, together with the feeling of a full ear, characterizes Meniere’s syndrome.
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Home Remedies: Blocked ear treatments

In summary, one can say that home remedies such as inhaling chamomile tea and, of course, pressure equalization techniques are often sufficient to relieve the pressure and pop your ears. Decongestant nasal spray, sprayed in the nose to relieve pressure in ears, is particularly useful because it ensures ventilation of the ear, thereby reducing pressure and making it difficult for germs to gain foothold. 

A common tip amongst many mothers is to put nasal drops into the ear. This is not recommended, though, as nasal drops are used solely to decongest the mucous membrane in the nose. As the ear contains no mucous membrane, only cleansing and germ-killing agents will work. A good range of ear sprays, drops and herbal tincture drops are available from most pharmacies. 

The Valsalva maneuver

Working differently from person to person, there are various methods of equalizing ear pressure, amongst them the Valsalva manoeuvre. The following techniques are useful if the ear is blocked following a flight, or when going up in the elevator or after passage through a tunnel aboard fast trains:

  • Open your mouth wide; then move your jaw up and down and from side to side until you hear a very faint popping noise or crackle in your ear
  • Yawn on purpose
  • With your mouth closed, pinch your nose and push air out of your lungs into your mouth and nasal cavity
  • Swallow and chew
  • When flying, chewing gum is a good way to maintain ear pressure equalization. If techniques for pressure equalization in the ear remain ineffective, and the problem persists for more than two days, you should ask your ear, nose and throat doctor for advice.
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