Why Do My Ears Feel Plugged?

4 Main Reasons for Having "Clogged" Ears

Comparison of Adult and Child's Auditory Tube. Photo © A.D.A.M.

Plugged ears can be caused by a few different things. The list includes fluid in the ear, changes in atmospheric pressure, excessive ear wax, or if you are an eight-year-old-boy because your best friend dared you to stick gravel in them. Each cause will have a different treatment so you don't have to live with clogged ears.

Plugged Ears Caused by Fluid in the Ear

Plugged ears can be a result of trapped fluid in the auditory tube.

The auditory tube normally carries unwanted debris from the ears to the back of the throat where it is swallowed but sometimes it can become plugged and fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear.

  • Conditions that can cause the auditory tube to become blocked can include enlarged structures such as tonsils, adenoids, and turbinates, or severe congestion
  • It's common to have plugged ears for a while after you've had a severe cold and it can also be caused by allergies.
  • Fluid in the ear is more likely to be the cause of plugged ears in children because their auditory tube is smaller and naturally more horizontal than adults.

Even though your ears may feel plugged, it is common to have little or no symptoms of fluid in the ear. It can, however, result in hearing loss and if left undiagnosed in small children, it can lead to speech delays. In severe cases, there can be ear pain or pressure, dizziness or balance loss (vertigo), and gross motor delays.

In the past, chronically plugged ears caused by fluid have sometimes been treated with decongestants, but the latest research does not support this.

If you do not have bothersome symptoms, or if the patient is a child who is not at risk for developmental delays, your doctor may choose to monitor the fluid at 3-6 month intervals to see if it goes away on its own.

If bothersome symptoms occur or developmental delays and decreased hearing is a concern, research shows the best treatment for chronically plugged ears is inserting ear tubes via a procedure called a myringotomy

Myringotomy is a common procedure done under anesthesia in which a tiny hole is made in the eardrum and synthetic tubes are placed in the auditory tube to hold it open. This tube allows the fluid to drain out of it. The hole in the eardrum heals on its own in a few days and the synthetic tubes fall out without intervention about a year later.

Plugged Ears Caused by Altitude Changes

Plugged ears can be caused by rapid changes in ambient pressure. This is, again, a result of the auditory tube.

Along with the eardrum, the auditory tube equalizes the pressure between the middle ear and the outer ear. This is why your ears can feel plugged when you are driving up a steep mountain or taking off in an airplane. This can also occur while scuba diving and if precautions are not taken can lead to severe ear injuries (barotrauma).

The best way to prevent barotrauma and to help plugged ears from altitude changes is to swallow or yawn frequently. This opens up your normally collapsed auditory tube allowing outside air to enter the ear.

If you experience pain, fluid drainage or significant hearing loss see a doctor.

Plugged Ears Caused by Excessive Ear Wax

Occasionally, plugged ears can be caused by too much ear wax. This is not a common problem since the ears normally have their own built-in cleaning system, but for unknown reasons a certain percentage of the population may overproduce ear wax.

Don't try to remove excessive ear wax yourself, let your doctor remove it with special equipment to avoid rupturing your eardrum or pushing the wax even further into your ear. The FDA has warned against using ear candles as well.

Your doctor may use one of these methods:

  • irrigate the ear with water
  • scoop it out with a special tool called a curette or cerumen spoon
  • use ear drops which are designed to dissolve ear wax.

Plugged Ears Caused by a Foreign Object

Your eight-year-old son is complaining of plugged ears, he won't stop rubbing them and you swear you saw him grimace. He doesn't have a fever or any cold symptoms and you highly suspect he's stuck something in his ears. But let's face it after you grounded him for a month in kindergarten for shoving dried beans up his nose, there's no way he's going to tell you the truth.

What are you going to do? Well, you can get your flashlight out and take a look but you shouldn't remove it unless you're absolutely positive you can do so without injuring the ear. Never stick anything sharp inside of the ear in an attempt to remove a foreign object.

The best thing to do is get in the car and take a trip to the pediatrician's office where specialized equipment can help the doctor see and remove the object safely. If you notice any fluid draining from the ear or a foul odor, your child needs to see a physician immediately.


U.S. National Library of Medicine. Medline Plus website. Ear wax. Updated August 2014.

Diacova S, McDonald TJ, Ababii I. "Clinical, functional, and surgical findings in chronic bilateral otitis media with effusion in childhood. " Ear Nose Throat J. 2016 Aug;95(8):E31-7.

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