Plugged ears, ear congestion, or feeling of ear pressure, are terms that generally indicate a subjective sensation of ear fullness affecting one or both ears. These symptoms, which occur frequently, are often associated with an alteration or a reduction in hearing ability, sometimes described as muffled hearing. It is important to specify that ear pressure and hearing loss are different phenomena, although they can coexist in numerous illnesses.
When we race through a tunnel by train, or take off and land by plane, we often feel pressure on our ears. This is a sign of what sensitive organs our ears are. A little pressure in the ear is not dangerous, just uncomfortable. But what exactly happens in the ear when the pressure is felt on the ear?
In the middle ear, behind the eardrum, is the so-called tympanic cavity, an air-filled space that contains, among other things, the ossicles. The tympanic cavity passes through a tubular connection into the back pharynx. This connection is called the eustachian tube (also called the ear trumpet or the tuba auditiva). It adjusts the air pressure in the middle ear to that of the environment. When we yawn or swallow, the eustachian tube usually opens, which causes an air pressure equalization. In this way, the eardrum has the same pressure on both sides and can function optimally. Many people are familiar with this pressure: they feel an uncomfortable feeling in their ears and have to swallow repeatedly to equalize the pressure on the eardrum.
The eardrum lies deep in the ear canal. It is elastic, transmits the vibrations of the sound to the sensitive organs of the middle and inner ear - and closes the ear airtight. If for example the air pressure is changed by speed or height, there are different pressure conditions outside and inside the ear; this causes ear pressure. The eardrum bulges uncomfortably due to the overpressure or underpressure in the ear. It feels like your ears are closing. We involuntarily have to bring about pressure equalization in the ear. This happens through air equalization via the eustachian tube. This tube connects the inside of the ear with the nose and throat.
Health effects can result if you have a bad cold and the eustachian tube becomes blocked with mucus. In such cases, air and fluids can build up in the ear, which can temporarily impair hearing. In such situations, the risk of developing infections in the ear also increases. This is particularly common in young children, as their eustachian tubes are more likely to clog.
If the feeling of pressure in the ear occurs without external influences, an infection is usually the cause. Because the earache pressure and also the feeling of the closed ear also arise when the eustachian tube is blocked, for example, by the increased formation of mucus from a cold or an allergy (e.g. hay fever). In contrast to changing air pressure from the outside, pressure is often only created on 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:
Indeed, the feeling of a full ear is often interpreted as the subjective symptom of endolymphatic hydrops, which affects and is a key phenomenon of Ménière's disease. It is due to the increase in a liquid (endolymph) which is contained, in very small quantities, within the bodies responsible for controlling balance (labyrinth). The endolymph increasing in volume causes tinnitus, a reduction in hearing ability but also dizziness. This symptomatic triad, together with the feeling of a full ear, characterizes Ménière's syndrome.
It is therefore clear that the sensation of pressure in the ear must always be carefully evaluated by the specialist doctor who, through a direct vision of the ear - otoscopy - can identify the cause of the disorder and steer you towards proper therapy.
If there is no pressure, but your hearing performance becomes increasingly poor, there may be a completely harmless, simple cause: a clogged feeling in the ear and dull hearing can be caused by plugs of ear wax forming in the ear. A banal earwax plug affecting the external ear is perhaps the most frequent cause of pressure in the ear. This phenomenon is the direct consequence of the presence of specific receptors (baroreceptors), in the external auditory canal, that respond to pressure variations. The accumulation of ceruminous material and debris of the external auditory canal, when it causes a total closure of the canal, determines a consequent 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.
To loosen the plug, rinses are available in pharmacies. Your ENT doctor can remove particularly firm clogs. A less harmless cause is stress. This can be a sign of an impending hearing loss or tinnitus. If you think you have ear pressure from stress, apply the emergency brake. Use relaxation techniques (e.g. autognes training) and treat yourself to rest.
Of course, a "real" hearing loss is also possible. To check your hearing performance. you can carry out a first hearing test online here. Alternatively, your Amplifon hearing care professional will be happy to carry out a non-binding precise hearing test in your nearest branch for free. Contact an ear, nose and throat doctor to determine the causes of the decreased hearing.
In the airplane and in high-speed trains, the cabins are built so that they almost completely exclude the outside pressure. Nevertheless, most people feel pressure on their ears. Earplugs can be helpful for particularly sensitive ears (like children). Due to their elasticity, they reduce the pressure on the eardrum and can help prevent earache after your flight. The pressure on the ears after a flight is particularly delicate when there is still water in the ear (e.g. from swimming shortly before departure). Inflammation of the middle ear is then easier. Here, too, children are affected more often; one solution could be earplugs for swimming.
Divers must learn to equalize pressure. The pressure on the ears increases with every meter that they go deeper. In order to prevent sustained damage to the ear, a so-called barotrauma, the pressure must be removed from the eardrum. If your ear feels closed, after a flight, when going up a lift, or after tunnel passages in fast trains, these techniques make sense:
For many people, one of the first symptoms of a cold is that the ear closes. If the reason for the pressure on the ears is a cold, the doctor usually recommends using a decongestant nasal spray. If your ears close when you have a cold, the eustachian tube described above can be kept as free as possible. The ear pressure in case of a cold first arises from the fact that the middle ear can no longer be adequately ventilated. Only then do viruses and bacteria have the opportunity to trigger otitis media. Mucus can get blocked inside the eustachian tube, which is why you can sometimes hear noises due to the mobilization of the mucus during the movement of the head (for example when you put your head on the pillow), and when you chew or yawn. That is why it is so important to keep your ears clear when you have a cold. If you feel pressure on your ears when you have a cold, it's not always too late; you have a good chance of keeping your nose clear. In addition to decongestant nasal spray, inhalation also helps to activate the mucus drainage and to reduce the pressure in the ear when you have a cold.
Children sometimes complain of pressure or dullness in the ear without or after a cold. It could be a middle ear effusion. If you feel that your child is hearing poorly, this could be the reason. Instruct the pediatrician to take a closer look at their ears. It can usually be treated simply by inserting tympanic tubes. Alternatively, patients may need surgical correction of the nasal septum. Even if the problem "grows", in many cases in later years, action should be taken early to avoid disruptions in language development and social problems.
Constant pressure on the ears or one-sided constant pressure in the ear can indicate a tube closure or other diseases. In some cases, however, certain exercises (e.g. valsalva maneuvers) are enough to get rid of the pressure on the ears. A common cause is also a mostly harmless tube ventilation disorder: if the ear tube, (the eustachian tube) is too tight, this tube ventilation disorder can cause permanent pressure on the ears.
The doctor determines this using pain-free otoscopy (ear mirroring). The ear trumpet can be widened with a small operation, thereby greatly reducing the susceptibility to otitis media. A ventilation disorder in the ear creates a humid, warm climate in the middle and inner ear, in which viruses and bacteria can develop particularly well. If think that your ear pressure is not going away, do not hesitate to see an ENT doctor. In most cases, they can help you quickly and easily.
In summary, sometimes home remedies such as chamomile tea and of course the techniques for pressure equalization are often sufficient for pressure on the ears. Decongestant nasal spray for ear pressure is particularly useful because it ensures the ventilation of the ear, relieving the pressure and making it difficult for germs to settle. The old wives' tale of putting nose drops in the ear is not recommended. Nose drops cause the mucous membrane to swell: there is no mucous membrane in the ear. This is where cleaning and germicidal agents have to work. There are ear sprays, ear drops or herbal drops in the pharmacy that can be taken. Discover more home remedies for earache on our blog.