What Causes Clogged Ears Besides Wax?

Medically Reviewed on 1/5/2022

6 causes of a clogged ear

ear feels clogged, but no wax
Here are 6 causes of a clogged ear, which include a blockade of the eustachian tube, swimmer’s ear, acoustic neuroma, and noise damage.

Ears become clogged due to the etiology both within and outside the ear. Ear clogging can impair hearing and balance, as well as cause pain and discomfort.

Clogging of ears is seen in all age groups, and one of the most common causes of a clogged ear is the buildup of ear wax. Besides ear wax, various other factors clog the ears.

Here are the 6 causes of a clogged ear:

  1. Blockade of eustachian tube:
    • Ears feel clogged when the eustachian tube (a small tube that runs from the middle to the back of the nose) is blocked.
    • The eustachian tube drains fluids from the ear into the nose and balances the pressure in the middle ear. When it blocks the fluid, the mucus does not drain, accumulates in the middle ear, and causes the ear clog. This results in the buildup of pressure in the middle ear, and the ear feels fuller.
    • Infections cause the eustachian tube to block, such as:
  2. Swimmer’s ear:
    • The early stages of an outer ear infection, often called the swimmer's ear, are frequently characterized by muffled hearing or a sensation of congested ears. There may be discharge in some circumstances. This may progress to fungal otitis media.
  3. Acoustic neuroma:
    • Acoustic neuroma is a benign tumor that grows on the cranial nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain. These tumors are often slow-growing and tiny.
    • They can, however, impose pressure on nerves in the inner ear when they grow. This can result in ear blockage, hearing loss, and ringing in the ear.
  4. Noise damage (noise-induced hearing loss):
    • One of the most prevalent kinds of sensorineural hearing loss is noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
    • The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) found that up to 40 million Americans suffer from hearing loss in one or both ears due to long-term exposure to excessive noises or a one-time exposure to extraordinarily loud noise, such as an explosion or a blast.
    • After exposure to a blast, one may have temporary hearing loss for 48 hours. 
    • To avoid irreversible hearing loss, a person may follow the listed steps when they are at a noisy place.
      • Use earplugs or other hearing protection equipment.
      • Reduce the volume on the television, vehicle radio, or any other personal electronic item while listening with earphones.
      • If one cannot shield their ears from the noise or turn the noise down, they should get as far away from it as possible.
  5. High altitudes:
    • While scuba diving, driving up a mountain, or flying in an airplane, some people have transient ear congestion. This obstruction is caused by a sudden shift in air pressure outside the body.
    • The eustachian tube oversees balancing pressure in the middle ear. However, at higher altitudes, it may not always be able to effectively balance pressure. 
      • As a result, changes in air pressure are experienced in the ears. 
      • Sometimes the only negative effect of changing altitude is a plugged ear.
      • One may have headaches, nausea, or shortness of breath if one gets high altitude sickness.
  6. Head injury:
    • Traumatic head injuries can create a sensation of aural fullness, or the sensation that the ears will not pop.

3 rare conditions that cause clogged ears

Here are 3 rare conditions that cause clogged ears:

  1. Meniere’s disease
    • Meniere’s disease affects the inner ear and produces symptoms, such as plugged ears, hearing loss, dizziness, and persistent buzzing. The exact cause for the development of Meniere’s disease is unknown, but it appears to be more common in adults between the ages of 20 and 50 years.
    • Because there is no known cause, there is no cure for this condition. Nevertheless, it can be managed with medicines prescribed by a doctor. These drugs will help reduce symptoms daily, particularly dizziness and the sense of having a blocked ear.
  2. Cholesteatoma
    • Cholesteatoma is a rare ear condition, but patients with recurring ear infections have high chances of developing it. Cholesteatoma is an abnormal skin development inside the ear canal that forms a cyst and stops sound from entering, giving the feeling of a clogged ear.
    • The doctor may prescribe ear drops to ease symptoms, but a small surgery may be required to remove the cyst and eliminate the symptoms.
  3. Labyrinthitis
    • Although labyrinthitis is uncommon, it is a rather frequent ear issue characterized by acute dizziness and a clogged ear. Patients suffering from labyrinthitis experience a ringing or buzzing sound, lose their balance, and briefly their hearing.
    • There is no definitive cure for labyrinthitis because it peaks at different periods throughout the year. It is recommended to consult a doctor to determine the origin of the labyrinthitis and begin appropriate medication to reduce symptoms, particularly during peaks. This helps improve the quality of life.
    • To summarize, many people effectively self-treat blocked ears using home remedies and over-the-counter drugs. Patients with clogged ears may experience other symptoms, such as:
      • Severe pain in the ear
      • Stuffiness of the nose
      • Pain radiating to the jaw
      • Headache
      • Fever
      • Swallowing difficulty
      • Temporary hearing loss

If the ears are still blocked after trying many home cures, see a doctor, especially if you are suffering from hearing loss or have ringing in your ears or discomfort. Treating the cause will ease the symptoms.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/5/2022
References
Image Source: iStock Images

University of Michigan Health System. Blocked Eustachian Tubes. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uf9680

Seattle Children’s Hospital. Ear – Congestion. https://www.seattlechildrens.org/conditions/a-z/ear-congestion/

Omaha ENT. What Causes Clogged or Ringing Ears. https://omahasinus.com/what-causes-clogged-or-ringing-ears/

Healthy Me PA. 3 Causes and 3 Remedies for Clogged Ears. https://www.healthymepa.com/2018/09/24/3-causes-3-remedies-clogged-ears/