Clogged Ears And Ringing: What Are Some Common Causes?

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Clogged Ears And Ringing

Clogged ears can occur at many different times, and as a result of many different conditions. Although there are a few obvious suspects (such as a cold or an ear infection), there are also issues that can come along with clogged ears, such as tinnitus and temporary hearing loss. Below, we will take a closer look at some common and not-so-common causes of clogged or ringing ears.

Clogged Ears: A Definition

Before diving into the potential causes of or catalysts for these issues, let’s determine precisely what constitutes a clogged ear, and what does not suggest clogged ears are the issue. Although the term “clogged” is not a medical or official one, it is the descriptor most frequently given to ears that feel as though pressure within the ears is unequal. This is typically the result of Eustachian tube dysfunction, or disruption to the proper functioning of the Eustachian tube. Although a feeling of fullness, or being plugged, can affect one or both ears, it is most often experienced in both, and may or may not be accompanied by sinus pressure.

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There are several words that can be used in place of “clogged,” with the most common word being “plugged.” A sensation of fullness can be caused by an ear infection, a sinus infection, or even changes in pressure, and concerns like hearing loss and ringing in the ears may accompany sensations of fullness. Clogged and ringing ears are common complaints brought to the attention of Ear, Nose, and Throat specialists, and these sensations can occur in acute illnesses and more chronic conditions, alike. Below, we will identify some of the more common reasons for pressure and aural fullness, as well as ringing ears.

Earwax Buildup

Woman using a Q-Tip to clean her ears

Earwax (also called cerumen) is a naturally-occurring substance found within the ears. Cerumen is a combination of waxy material and dust and dead skin. The waxy material is produced by special glands within the ear canal, and mixes with dust and debris as a filtration system to maintain the health and cleanliness of the ears. Cerumen also protects the ear canal through its antibacterial and antifungal properties. In some instances, however, including overuse of Q-tips and certain conditions, earwax can build up and block the ear canal, which can lead to a sensation of clogged ears and even the onset of tinnitus.

Earwax impaction can require the intervention of a physician, though it may not always be a requirement. If professional intervention is needed, an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor (ENT) is the most likely solution, though a primary care physician or audiologist can also be tasked with the intervention. Mild wax build up is often treated at home using over the counter wax softeners like Debrox, or home remedies like olive, mineral, or baby oil.

Outer Ear Infections

Earwax that causes aural fullness and leads to muffled sounds is likely to be impacted, and will typically require removal by a healthcare professional. Impacted earwax can also potentially contribute to the development of an outer ear infection, if wax were to trap water and moisture within the ear canal; after all, moisture provides the perfect breeding ground for bacteria to grow and multiply after the area has been exposed.

Otitis externa is the official name given to outer ear infections. An outer ear infection is more common in those who spend a lot of time in the water, and may be more likely to occur in swimmers and people whose work or leisure activities take them outside in damp or wet conditions. Otitis externa may be more commonly known as swimmer’s ear, and it can be caused by bacterial or fungal infections. Both require treatment by a physician. Tinnitus that arises as a result of an outer ear infection will typically go away with treatment of the infection itself.

Air Pressure Changes

Air pressure changes can have a profound impact on the auditory system. While these kinds of changes can lead to the development of a runny nose or dry and itchy throat, they can also cause temporary ear clogging until inside and outside pressure equalizes and the Eustachian tubes can function properly. Airplane flights, scuba diving, and driving through mountains are all common causes of air pressure changes, and when the Eustachian tubes connecting the middle ear and the back of the nose and throat are not properly regulated during air pressure changes, issues with hearing and sinus health can result.

Eustachian Tube Dysfunction

Diagram of the inside of the ear

Eustachian tube dysfunction, also called Eustachian tube blockage, often occurs in response to allergies, sinus infections, colds, or changes in air pressure. Regardless of the precise cause, this type of blockage can result in feelings of congestion or fullness in the ears that lingers long after the initial exposure or acute issue. In some cases, dysfunction of the Eustachian tube can lead to negative pressure in the middle ear space, which may cause discomfort and result in fluid build up as the moisture is pulled from the mucous membranes in the middle ear. Tinnitus can be the natural result, leading to a perception of ringing, buzzing, and other sounds within the ears, without an external, identifiable source. It is important to note, however, that not everyone with Eustachian tube dysfunction will experience symptoms of tinnitus, and tinnitus can be the result of numerous conditions and concerns.

Fluid Buildup And Middle Ear Infections

As mentioned above, fluid has the ability to accumulate in the middle ear. Eustachian tube dysfunction, infection, allergies, and changes in altitude can all be responsible for sensations of fullness or clogging. One common cause is upper respiratory infection. If clogged or ringing ears are present alongside a runny nose or other symptoms of a sinus infection, it is likely that there is fluid building up in the affected ear/s. A prolonged build up of fluid and fluid discharge can sometimes lead to the onset of bacterial or viral infections within the middle ear, called otitis media.

Although many cases of bacterial or viral infection in this portion of the ear are mild, treatment by an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) is often recommended. Antibiotics and decongestants are frequently used to treat an infection in the middle portion of the ear. In addition to a sensation of being clogged, patients may also experience muffled hearing, necessitating an audiologist referral for a hearing test; fluid accumulation has the potential to cause temporary hearing loss. Acute otitis media can be accompanied by severe symptoms of fever and ear pain, so it is important not to delay a consultation with a medical professional if you experience any of the aforementioned symptoms.

Changes in pressure and the presence of fluid in the ear can potentially negatively impact the delicate structures of the inner ear. These structures include the cochlea, a part of the ear that is at least partially responsible for maintaining normal hearing ability. Disturbances to the delicate structures of the inner and middle ear can contribute to the perception of tinnitus, and when an infection or damage to these areas is cleared, tinnitus typically resolves without further intervention or dedicated tinnitus treatment.

Foreign Objects

Foreign objects being embedded within the ear can also be implicated when there is a sensation of clogged or full ears. Sometimes, small objects or debris can enter the ear canal inadvertently, resulting in a feeling of blockage, fullness or discomfort, or even tinnitus. Although some foreign objects can be removed alone, foreign objects that have become truly lodged or found deep within the ear canal may require professional intervention, in order to safely extract them without the risk of causing further damage or exacerbating the clogged feeling. If you suspect a foreign object of being at the root of ear ringing, take a deep breath, and promptly make a call to your physician.

Other Factors

Man with sinus pressure

There are many other factors that can come into play when ears feel clogged or full. Exposure to extremely loud noise, leading to ear damage, sinus infections with or without other issues like runny nose and sore throat, conditions like Meniere’s Disease, allergies, and even temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction and issues can also contribute to a feeling of ear congestion and symptoms of tinnitus.

Ear congestion and tinnitus can be caused by a series of issues, too, rather than a single concern. If you are experiencing symptoms of more than one condition, or you are at risk of having one or more of the conditions identified here, you may experience a greater likelihood of developing hearing issues like tinnitus.

Treating Ear Disorders, Ear Conditions, And Tinnitus

If you are experiencing persistent ear congestion, discomfort and pain, or decreased hearing ability, it is essential to consult with a healthcare professional, such an audiologist on the Treble Health team. Although some hearing changes are to be expected when you have a sinus infection or other condition impacting the ears and auditory system, a sensation of fullness, prolonged hearing changes, and the onset of auditory issues like hearing phantom sounds are all reason enough to seek help from a medical or hearing professional to address possible causes of the changes, and restore health to ears and hearing. 

If you are experiencing any auditory issues, such as clogged ears or tinnitus, we encourage you to schedule a complimentary telehealth consultation with an audiologist on our team. During this free, 20-minute Zoom call, you can ask any questions that you may have and learn about the best treatment options for your specific situation. Our team of audiologists have decades of experience in top practices around the country, and are committed to helping you find relief from any auditory issues that may arise.

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