If your hearing is unexpectedly muffled, your ears feel pressured, or you feel like you’re hearing things from underwater, chances are you are suffering from plugged, clogged, or otherwise stuffy ears.
The good news is that learning how to unclog ears is a relatively straightforward process that can be accomplished at home most of the time.
However, the actual home remedies for clogged ears that you use are going to first depend on what’s causing your plugged ears in the first place.
What it Means When Your Ear Feels Clogged
The terms clogged, stuffed, blocked, and plugged tend to get used interchangeably from person to person, although different people likely have their own preferences about which word works best for what problem. The main takeaway here is that different people can end up using the same phrase to refer to what is ultimately not the same problem and, therefore, not the same solution. The first step in knowing how to get rid of clogged ears, therefore, is figuring out the underlying issue.
Your body naturally produces an oil called cerumen (earwax) that protects the ear canal from dust, foreign particles, unwanted invaders, and irritation due to water. Any excess earwax normally makes its way through the outer ear until it gets washed away. Under some circumstances, however, earwax can build up to an excessive degree. This can be the result of overproduction, the wax being pushed deeper into the ear (for example, with a cotton swab), or wearing headphones or a hearing aid for too long (which prevents drainage). In addition to the ear feeling clogged or full, an earwax blockage can cause sudden, partial (but temporary) hearing loss and an earache. If left untreated, an ear infection may develop.
The Eustachian tube is a passage that connects the middle ear to the nasopharynx and serves to promote fluid drainage and to equalize the pressure between the middle ear and the outside atmosphere. It does this by opening in response to pressure changes or when you undertake certain actions. However, if the Eustachian becomes swollen or blocked, this can’t happen and the resulting pressure makes your ear feel stopped up. This usually happens as a result of congestion, such as from a cold or sinus infection, but the Eustachian can also be physically prevented from opening due to extremely rapid shifts in air pressure (like from an airplane takeoff or landing).
This is more common in children since they have less space in their ears, but it can happen in adults as well. Fluid can become trapped in the ear if it’s caught by an obstruction such as swollen tonsils, adenoids, or a foreign object. The type of fluid doesn’t matter as much since it could be water from swimming or mucus—the result will still be the same. The trapped fluid on its own will create a feeling of a clogged ear, but it can also serve as a reservoir for bacteria and lead to further ear infections.
This last point is admittedly obvious but it still needs to be pointed out. If there is a foreign object stuck in your ear, it is most definitely going to feel plugged. This is more common in children but as any ER doctor can tell you, it happens to adults as well and for a variety of reasons. Foreign objects, particularly smaller ones, can actually stay in the ear for a surprisingly long time before getting removed, so it’s fully possible for someone to get something lodged in there and then forget about it. Also, insects can and do wander into and get trapped in people’s ears, which creates a very noticeable and decidedly unpleasant obstruction.
Tips to Unclog Your Ears
A quick caveat needs to be explained before we can move on to how to fix a clogged ear. Please do not try to scoop anything out of your ear on your own. This can be tempting in the case of foreign objects or earwax, but it can make things worse. You could scratch parts of the inner ear, push the earwax or obstruction further inside, or even accidentally puncture the eardrum. Also, some of the methods described below will involve irrigation or pouring certain oils or solutions into the ear. Do not attempt these methods in someone who has an ear infection or who has ear tubes. If you have ear tubes, it’s best to err on the side of caution and speak with your doctor before attempting to unclog your ears.
With that caution out of the way, it’s time to learn how to clear a clogged ear.
An ear irrigation kit can be bought over the counter at any pharmacy.
There are two main options available when trying to address excessive earwax. The first is to use a softening substance to break up the wax and allow it to drain out normally. These are obtained in the form of mineral oil, hydrogen peroxide, carbamide peroxide, baby oil, or glycerin eardrops that you can buy over the counter.
The second option for at-home earwax removal is ear irrigation. Again, this can be accomplished with a kit you can buy over the counter at any pharmacy. Alternatively, you can follow these steps:
- Fill a bulb ear syringe with body-temperature water.
- Stand or sit with your head in an upright position.
- Hold the earlobe and pull it gently upwards (this straightens the ear canal).
- Use the syringe to project a stream of water into your ear.
- Tip your head and let the water drain out.
- Repeat as necessary.
You can force the Eustachian tubes to open by using something called the Valsalva maneuver. This is a quick and easy technique that has three main steps:
- Take a deep breath and close your mouth.
- Pinch your nose shut.
- Try to exhale through your nose.
If done correctly, you will hear a popping sound and feel the pressure change in your ears. Be careful not to do the maneuver for too long since it can damage the eardrum, and stop immediately if it makes your ears hurt. Another option for keeping the tubes open is to suck on a candy or chew some gum, since the motions of your mouth will open the Eustachian repeatedly. If the problem is rooted in congestion, inhaling steam or taking a hot shower can help add enough moisture to thin out the mucus.
Insert your index finger into your ear and gently move it up and around until you find the place where you can create a vacuum. Use this to try and suck the fluid out.
Want to know how to unplug ears when fluid is the problem? Sometimes all you need to use is your finger. Insert your index finger into your ear and gently move it up and around until you find the place where you can create a vacuum. Use this to try and suck the fluid out. Another option is the “one-legged gravity hop.” This is accomplished by standing on one foot and tilting your head so the plugged ear faces the floor. Hop on one foot as steadily as you can and the motion, combined with the angle of your head, may be able to dislodge any trapped fluid. You can also try lying down with the blocked ear facing a pillow to promote further drainage.
Lastly, try using a blow-drier to dry up the fluid. This needs to be done very carefully to avoid damaging your ear. Take a blow-drier and set it as low as possible and hold it away from your ear so that only a little, controlled amount of air gets in. It’s extremely important that you do not use anything but the lowest setting for this task.
How you proceed with removing a foreign object from the ear depends on both the object’s size and how far in it is.
- If the object is fully visible, you may be able to get someone else to remove it, gently, using tweezers.
- Tilting your head to the side and trying the vacuum-finger technique mentioned above may also work for small items.
- Ear irrigation using body-temperature water may be able to flush the item out just as it might with excess earwax.
- It bears repeating that you should not try to scrape or scoop the item out using a tool in order to avoid damaging the ear or pushing the object further in.
- If none of these methods work, seeing a doctor may be necessary. Fortunately a foreign object (1) is not an emergency problem unless there are signs of infection or injury (significant pain or bleeding).
Getting a trapped insect out of your ear is a slightly more involved affair. Tilt the ear upward and pour warm (not hot) baby oil or mineral oil into the ear. This will suffocate the insect and allow it to float out as the oil drains. This method should not be used for anything other than insect removal.
Regardless of how you unclog your ears, it’s important to be gentle during the process. The middle ear is very sensitive to force and temperature, so treating your ear too roughly risks damage, even if other parts of your body would be fine. If any of these unplugging approaches causes you pain, stop immediately.