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How To Safely Unclog Your Ears At Home

November 20, 2023
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Written by
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A

Dr. Amy Sarow is a practicing clinical audiologist and serves as Audiology Lead for Soundly. Her expertise and experience span topics including tinnitus, cochlear implants, hearing aid technology, and hearing testing. She holds a doctoral degree in audiology from the University of Iowa. During her residency at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Sarow was inspired by the three-tiered, patient-centered approach, incorporating clinical work, teaching and research.

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Have you ever experienced a feeling of fullness or pressure in your ears, as if air cannot get through? My patients—especially those with allergies—commonly report these sensations. This clogged ear feeling can be caused by various issues, including impacted earwax, a blocked Eustachian tube, or swimmer’s ear. Don’t worry because you can take steps to treat these symptoms at home. Read on to learn more about clogged ears and how to unplug your ears at home.

What Causes Your Ears to Feel Clogged?

The most common cause of clogged ears? Impacted earwax. Your ears can become plugged up when too much wax accumulates (yes, really), which may then build up in the ear canal. Sometimes, the wax may even become hard and block the ear canal too. This blockage stops sound from entering the ear, making hearing very difficult or impossible.

Many people also experience this sensation after flying in an airplane. Sound seems muffled, you may feel some pressure in the ears, and some even feel discomfort during or after landing.

Other common causes of clogged ears include a blocked Eustachian tube (aka, the passage between the back of the nose and middle ear) and swimmer’s ear (i.e., an infection of the skin in the outer part of the ear).

How to Safely Remove Earwax at Home

In most cases, the ear is self-cleaning (which is pretty neat). However, if you are prone to wax buildup, there are ways you can help assist the ear in clearing the wax.

To do this safely at home, follow these steps:

  • Use a few drops of mineral oil. Place several drops with an eyedropper into the affected ear, and the oil will help soften hardened wax in the ears.
  • Wait a few minutes to allow the oil to soften the wax.
  • While in the shower, gently allow some water to rinse your ears.

For earwax removal kits, check out our review of the best earwax removal kits here.

Note: Please do not attempt this method if you have an active eardrum perforation, PE tubes in your ears, or if a doctor has instructed you not to do this.

How to Clear a Blocked Eustachian Tube at Home

Do you have allergies, a cold, or are getting over a recent infection? That "plugged up" feeling can be frustrating and make it hard to hear. If you are congested, there are some strategies you can try at home to unstop your ears.

For example, after a flight using the Valsalva maneuver is often a quick and easy way to 'pop' your ears by pinching your nose closed with one hand and forcefully exhaling. This change in pressure will equalize the pressure in the ear following the change in pressure during the flight. Swallowing or chewing gum can also help.

Try these methods:

  • Take an over-the-counter decongestant medication or nasal spray. These medications help flush out mucus and congestion so that air can pass through easily.
  • Try the Lowery Maneuver. Perform a swallow with your nose pinched closed.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Drinking enough water helps keep mucus thin so that it can drain away.
  • Try a humidifier. Moisture can help soothe and calm the sinuses.
  • Use a warm compress on your neck. Applying gentle heat helps reduce inflammation in the area which may help clear up blockages and reduce discomfort.
  • Try steam inhalation. Breathing in steam helps keep nasal passages moist, which also encourages fluid drainage and helps clear blockages more quickly.
  • Use an otovent. This device is similar to blowing up a balloon with your nostril. Continue blowing up the balloon using one nostril until you feel the "pop" from the Eustachian tube clearing.

Note: Please seek medical attention if your symptoms persist for longer than two weeks or if you have pain in addition to the plugged sensation. In the case of severe Eustachian tube dysfunction, an ENT will prescribe medication or may even recommend surgery.

How to Treat Swimmer's Ear at Home

If you suspect that you have swimmer’s ear (aka, otitis externa), there are several steps you should take right away:

  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. This will help relieve any pain or discomfort associated with swimmer’s ear.
  • Apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment. Applying an antibiotic ointment directly into the infected area will help fight off any bacteria causing the infection.
  • Keep your ears clean. After swimming or showering, always remember to dry off thoroughly and gently wipe any moisture away from the ear.
  • Apply heat. Applying gentle heat with a warm washcloth will also help reduce inflammation and promote healing.

Preventing Swimmer's Ear

There are some simple actions you can take to prevent swimmer’s ear. Follow these two steps:

  • For anyone without a hole in their eardrum, using this mixture after swimming can help as a preventative measure against swimmer's ear. Mix one part vinegar and one part rubbing alcohol. Place a few drops (about 5 mL) in each ear and allow it to drain out.
  • Avoid inserting objects into your ears. Avoid putting anything into your ears at all because it can introduce germs and bacteria, which causes further irritation or infection.

When Should You See A Doctor?

In most cases, treating clogged ears at home is safe—however, if symptoms persist despite home treatment, see a doctor as soon as possible. Certain conditions require medical intervention for proper resolution (e..g., severe Eustachian tube dysfunction). Additionally, if symptoms worsen over time—such as severe pain or discharge—you must see a doctor immediately, as this could signify something more serious.

How long does a clogged ear last?

Depending on the cause, typically a clogged ear should pass within a few days to one week. For example, if you're getting over a cold or experiencing an allergy flare up, the should go away within a few days. Again, if the symptoms persist, it's time to see a doctor.

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Trying these tips can provide relief if you have that plugged-up sensation. However, depending on what is causing the blockage, some of these tips may be more effective than others. If you feel that your symptom persists or worsens despite home treatment, it is essential to seek medical attention from your doctor. It’s also a good idea to practice good ear hygiene, such as using disposable earplugs only once and avoiding introducing foreign objects into the ears to prevent swimmer's ear. Of course, if symptoms persist despite these home remedy tips, please don't hesitate to reach out for professional medical advice immediately.

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