The ear is extremely sensitive and delicate. And if your ear is blocked you’ll notice it immediately. It affects the world around you, and never really goes away. Depending on what’s behind the clogging, it can range from nagging, inconvenient and annoying to a potential health risk. Blocked ears are best addressed as soon as possible. But how and where to begin? What techniques should you use? How can you unclog your ear as soon as possible, without doing damage?
 
Below is a how-to guide for clearing a blocked ear. It includes the following steps : note the symptoms, identify possible causes, be aware of what to avoid (and what not to do), learn about do-it-yourself techniques and materials available in your home, then check with a pharmacist and finally visit a doctor or other hearing care professional.
 

Symptoms and effects of blocked ears

The most obvious symptom of a blocked or clogged ear is, of course, that you can’t hear well. But there are many related side effects, which can produce an array of symptoms.
woman with earache
These include: excess blocked earwax, earaches, itchiness, dizziness, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), ears that feel full or stuffed, popping in your ears and sinuses, muffled sounds, mild hearing loss and even vertigo — the feeling of spinning, when you’re standing still.
 
If you have an ear or sinus infection you may also notice clogging, intense or focused ear pain, fluid draining from your ear, a runny nose, a sore throat, coughing, sneezing, fever and redness. 

Blocked or clogged ears may also result from excess water in your ear (from swimming and even showering), and physical damage to your outer ear.
 

Identifying causes of ear blockage

Why do people get clogged and stuffy ears? Typical causes include excess earwax, sinus pressure, ear infections, fluid in the ear, and noise damage. Other conditions include airplane ear and swimmer’s ear (otitis externa).
 
Earwax is one of the most common causes of clogged ears. It’s important to understand that people produce different quantities of earwax, so there is no typical volume. 
 
However, using cotton swabs to remove earwax will definitely make things worse. It pushes earwax further into the ear, where it collects and hardens deeper inside. Using earplugs, earphones and hearing aids regularly can also increase the earwax in your ears. These devices similarly push the wax further in, and also prevent it from falling out naturally.
 
Another common source of clogged ears is the eustachian tubes, which connect the ear to the throat. These tubes are only a few millimeters wide and about one and one-half inches long. They provide fresh air to the inner ear, balance internal pressure, and drain fluid and mucus from the middle ear to the back of the throat. Whenever you chew, yawn or swallow, the tubes open.
 
If you experience swelling around your neck and throat — from allergies, a cold, or an infection — the tubes may be pinched shut. They can also fill with fluid and/or negative pressure. This causes ear pain, stuffy ears, and can also affect hearing. 
 
This feeling is known as barotrauma. It is the same thing you feel while scuba diving, when in a plane or when hiking or driving in the mountains.
 
Sometimes fluid builds up in the eustachian tubes, where it can become infected (otitis media). These middle ear infections typically clog adult ears for a week or two, and may be impacted by allergies, smoking and excess mucus production. Children are more susceptible to these infections, but also heal quicker. Inner ear infections are generally more serious, and last longer.
 
If your ears feel clogged, but there is no pain you probably have excess earwax. It is important to understand that earwax is not a bad thing. It is naturally occurring, has antibiotic properties and protects your ears from — among other things — dust, water, bacteria, fungus, hair and more. It also lubricates the ear, collects dead skin and pushes it towards the outer ear — where it naturally drops out in a self-cleaning process.
However, sometimes excess earwax does build up, leading to a series of related problems. It can affect hearing, cause earaches and lead to infection. It may be caused by narrow ear canals, growths in the ear, or ears with too much hair. Some people naturally have harder, drier earwax too. Seniors and the elderly are especially more prone; earwax generally becomes drier with age.
 
Noise is also a common cause of blocked or clogged ears. Certain situations — such as clubs and concerts, heavy machinery, and even earbuds with high volume — may impact your hearing in one or both ears. 
 
young woman with flu
There is increasing evidence that anxiety and stress may also affect your hearing, due to their effects on blood pressure, heart rate and breathing.
 

What to avoid when clearing blocked ears

As tempting as it is, do not put a cotton swab, tissue, towel, finger, bobby pins, chopsticks, or any other object into your ear to try and clear blocked earwax. 
 
While clearing the blocked ear, you may also cause micro-cuts, wedge dirt and bacteria into your ear canal, puncture your eardrum and do other permanent damage. You also push earwax further and deeper into your ear — where it will continue to build up, harden and become more difficult to remove. 
man holding hurting ear
Most medical professionals don’t advise patients to clean their ears regularly. Another thing to avoid is ear candling. This archaic technique involves inserting a hollow candle into the ear and lighting it. It is believed that the candle’s hot air creates a vacuum which draws earwax out. There is no scientific proof that this works.
 
What is well documented, however, is the many people injured by burning candle wax spilling onto their necks and faces, and even into their ears. Hearing loss can result.
 

How to clear a blocked ear

The good news is that most blocked and clogged ears are temporary. Some go away by themselves, while others are easily treated with home remedies. 
 
Here are a few:
  • Flex your jaw
  • Pop your ears
  • Use steam
  • Try a warm cloth
  • Wax softeners
  • Remove excess water
  • Earplugs
 
If your eustachian tubes are not open you can try several methods (which also work for hiccups). These include: swallowing, yawning, flexing your jaw, chewing gum, gulping water and gargling salt water.
 
The Valsalva Maneuver — This is a fancy name for popping your ears. Plug your nose, take a deep breath through your mouth, close your lips, puff your cheeks and exhale gently through your nose. The pressure that is created helps unclog your ears. Chewing gum afterwards will help keep your eustachian tube opens. This technique is especially useful during airline travel.
 
Steam —Ten to 15 minutes of steam in a hot shower will loosen mucus throughout your head (including in your ear). You can also boil a pot on the stove, place a towel over your head and inhale the steam.
 
A warm cloth — A hot wet compress can produce the same effect. Additionally, if you are feeling pain, placing a warm cloth or heating pad over your ear can help. Both ease general pain in the jaw and head. Simply pour hot water onto a clean cloth, wring it out and hold it to the affected ear.
 
Wax softeners — Baby oil, olive oil, mineral oil, glycerin and hydrogen peroxide all break up blocked earwax. Apply a few warm drops in your ear canal and keep your head tilted, to keep the liquid in for 10-30 seconds. When you drain it, some earwax should come with. If not, continue the practice for up to three to five days.
 
Water in the ear — If you spend extensive time in pools, lakes or the ocean you may have too much water in your ear. Simply moving your index finger up and down gently in your ear can help loosen trapped fluid. A few drops of alcohol or vinegar can also dry your ears.
 
Earplugs — These can help while swimming, and during air travel. The former keep water out of your ear and the latter help balance pressure.
 

Remedies for blocked ears at the pharmacist

Pharmacists have a variety of products which can help if your ears are blocked. Begin by describing your symptoms to the pharmacist, and make sure to read all packaging and instructions before you buy anything. 
 
If you’ve had previous ear conditions, ear surgeries, or holes in your eardrums — skip the pharmacist (and all the steps below) and go straight to a doctor.
 
If you’re feeling any pain related to your clogged or blocked ear a simple over the counter pain reliever (like ibuprofen) can help. Decongestants are also useful, because they reduce swelling in mucous membranes. This swelling creates pressure throughout your head.
 
Many pharmacies also offer cleaning drops which you can use at home. These drops soften earwax and break it up, so that it falls out naturally.
 
These drops, however, are not suitable for everyone. They can irritate your ears and even do damage (especially if you have perforated eardrum). These drops can also make your hearing worse, before they make it better.
Ear drops are also not designed for people with excessive wax buildups (known as impacted cerumen). Drops often worsen the condition. Because they don’t completely dissolve earwax, larger plugs may coalesce and form — which are even harder to remove.
 
For smaller quantities of earwax though, drops can be quite effective. Many types are available, and designed around ingredients like almond oil, olive oil, tea tree oil, eucalyptus oil, sodium bicarbonate and hydrogen peroxide. Many oils have antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties.
insomnia problem
These drops are generally applied several times a day. Simply lie on your side and get a tissue ready. Add the drops as directed and let them sit for the instructed duration. When you sit up, the drops will fall out, bringing some earwax with them.
 
Many pharmacies also offer bulb syringes for ear flushes. This process similarly begins with drops, but after letting them sit a syringe is used to flush water into the ear. Make careful note of the water temperature – not too hot and not too cold – and be very gentle. Don’t try to blast blocked earwax.
 
If you spend a lot of time in the water — like swimmers, lifeguards and surfers — pharmacies also offer drops which remove water from your ears. 
 

When to see a Doctor

Medical experts – such as general practitioners, audiologists and ENT (ear nose and throat) specialists can help with blocked ears. They can literally provide a different vantage, and have the tools to examine your ears more closely.
 
You should contact them if all the above methods fail, and there is no change after 3-5 days, or if the symptoms become more severe. For example, if muffled sound becomes a complete loss of hearing; or if irritation in the ear becomes severe pain.
 
If you experience a fluid build-up, fever, discharge, dizziness or a ringing in your ears (tinnitus) you should also consult a doctor.
 
If your ears routinely block up with earwax, you may also require manual wax removal. Blocked earwax is generally cleared with specialized equipment. Some create suction. A thin instrument with a hoop on the end may also be used to scrape earwax out. Another simple procedure is ear irrigation — an electric pump rinses the earwax out. 
 
It’s important to understand that medical professionals not only ease and clear blocked ears, they also help with recovery. For instance, if you have an infection in your ear (or sinuses) that is affecting your hearing, you may require prescription antibiotics. 
 
Hearing care professionals may also prescribe antihistamines, decongestants, prescription-strength ear drops, steroids (for allergies), and antifungal medications (for swimmer’s ear) to unblock a clogged ear.
 
Generally, a medical expert will review your symptoms, check your ears and test your hearing. These initial tests will also be useful should you require medical assistance in the future for your ears.
 
In some cases, clogged ears are caused by acoustic neuroma and benign growths. These are noncancerous, but can grow quite large; building pressure and closing your eustachian tubes. Surgery is generally required to remove the growths.