There are times when the exact sensation we experience in our ear may not always seem to be a medical problem, as is the case with pain or discharge from the ear. A blocked or clogged sensation in the ear is one such instance but it may be a symptom of some underlying medical condition that requires treatment.
What is a clogged ear?
A clogged or blocked ear is a common way to describe a feeling of congestion in the ear which is usually accompanied by discomfort and diminished hearing. It occurs for a number of different reasons, some of which can be serious. Ear congestion is a result of fluid, semi-solid or solid objects being present in the outer or middle ear, with alteration of ear pressure on either side of the ear drum, or as a result of inflammmation.
Signs and Symptoms
The sensation of the ears being blocked or clogged is a symptom on its own. This ear congestion may occur with a number of different ear conditions and may be accompanied by other symptoms. Associated symptoms includes:
- Diminished hearing on the affected side
- Itching of the ear or within the ear, which may also be accompanied by an itchy throat at times.
- Burning sensation, discomfort or pain.
- Ear secretions including watery fluids, mucus or even blood.
- Dizziness and poor balance.
- Sensitivity of the outer ear.
Symptoms may vary depending on the underlying condition. At times a blocked ear may occur on its own without any other associated symptoms. The lack or presence of other symptoms may not be an indication of the seriousness of the causative condition.
Causes of Blocked Ear
There are a number of common causes of a clogged ear sensation that have been discussed below. Most of these conditions either resolves spontaneously or can be completely treated medically. However, there are at times less common causes for a congested ear such as conditions like a cholesteatoma.
Allergies may result in inflammation of the outer or middle ear giving rise to congestion, itching, pain, burning and sometimes a discharge. It is caused by the immune system abnormally reacting to otherwise harmless substances known as allergens. It is more likely to occur in children particularly those with allergic rhinitis. Water, shampoo and other substances may also cause inflammation as a result of irritation to the ear tissue rather than an allergy.
Infections, mainly bacterial and viral, can cause inflammation of the outer or middle ear. Outer ear infections (otitis externa) tends to arise with water exposure and other forms of irritation to the outer ear. Middle ear infection (otitis media) is more common in children who have a history of allergies. The symptoms of an infection are similar to an allergy but fever is also present.
Glue ear is a condition where fluid accumulates in the middle ear. The exact reason why this occurs and continues is unclear. It appears to be more likely to occur in people who have allergies and those who are prone to ear infections. It is believed that glue ear is associated with blockage of the eustachian tube which will normally allow fluid in the middle ear to drain out into the back of the nose.
Plane ear is the common term for a conditions known as aerotitis media or barotitis media. It is a middle ear condition that arises during flights. The problem is due to a difference in ear pressure between the outer and middle ear. Often there is blockage of the eustachian tube that prevents the air pressure from stabilizing. A similar effect can occur when scuba diving.
Excessive earwax can cause a blocked or congested feeling in the ear. However, this is uncommon unless the earwax is impacted. This occurs when the wax is pushed deep into the outer ear repeatedly and eventually forms a firm plus. Normally earwax drains out of the ear in small quantities. However, excessive cleaning of the ear with cotton wool buds can lead to impacted earwax.
Trauma to the outer ear and specifically the ear canal and eardrum is more likely to be self-inflicted. It is usually accidental when attempting to clean the ear or scratch deep within it. Cotton wool buds can cause it but it is more likely to occur when a person inserts hard and sharp objects into the ear canal. This may include a pen, key, hair pin or matchstick among a host of other objects. Loud sounds can also cause trauma of the eardrum.
A foreign body in the ear is more commonly seen in young children and particularly toddlers who insert small objects into the ear. Contrary to popular belief, it is uncommon for insects to enter the ear canal, live within it or die inside. Earwax (cerumen) is a natural repellant. However, there are instances where small insects may enter and die within the ear canal but this is rare.
Remedies for Blocked Ear
It is always important to seek medical attention for a blocked or congested ear. This sensation may be due to a host of causes that require medical treatment and self-management could lead to complications. However, when there is no clear medical condition that is causing the condition, then a few simple measures may help to relieve the sensation of blocked or clogged ears.
- A few drops of olive oil in the ear canal can help to soften impacted wax and soothe an irritated ear. Remember that earwax plays an important role in the ear and should not be removed under normal circumstances. Never apply oil if the eardrum is perforates.
- Avoid loud sounds and do not use earphones. Rest the ears for a few days to weeks and if acoustic trauma is the problem the blocked feeling may slowly ease. Very loud noises can cause permanent damage to the hearing. Always wear protective device for the ears where indicated.
- Try chewing gum during takeoff and landing when on a flight. This may help to stabilize the air pressure on either side of the eardrum. Keeping the mouth opening, swallowing repeatedly and even talking during these periods could help. Do not sleep during takeoff and landing.