Why Won't My Ears Pop?

Ear pain caused by barometric pressure changes on an airplane.
Ear pain caused by barometric pressure changes on an airplane. Izabela Habur/Getty Images

Your body naturally maintains a normal balance of air pressure on both sides of your ear drum. When the pressure changes between the middle ear and the outside, you will feel like your ears are plugged. Depending on the amount of pressure change, you may even experience pain associated with the changes. Typically, as pressure starts to build up, you can equalize the pressure in your ears by swallowing.

However, as you ascend or descend rapidly by flying, diving, or driving up and down a steep mountain, the air in your middle ear space can sometimes have trouble adjusting to the pressure. Under normal circumstances, as your middle ear adjusts to the ambient pressure (pressure of where you are), you should have the sensation of your ears popping. This popping or clicking sensation occurs as air moves from the upper part of your throat and nose through your eustachian tube into your middle ear.

Ways to Pop Your Ears

Any medical condition that affects your eustachian tube can change your natural ability to equalize the pressure in your ears. If the pressure difference continues to and you are unable to get your ears to equalize, or pop, you can experience ear pain and even get a ruptured eardrum (also called barotrauma).. Try these tricks to help to equalize the pressure in your ears.

  • swallowing
  • yawning
  • chew gum
  • suck on hard candy
  • valsalva maneuver — try to forcefully breath out while mouth is shut and nose is pinched
  • use over-the-counter decongestants, like Afrin or Sudafed, before traveling

If you are traveling with an infant or toddler, you may not be able to get them to do any of the above. You can simulate the same actions by get them to use a bottle, suck on a pacifier, or give them a drink.

If you feel pressure, pain, or the sensation of your ears being plugged and they won't pop, you may have an underlying ear disorder that is affecting the function of your auditory (eustachian) tube. The following problems can affect the ability of your ears to pop.

Fluid in the Ear

Fluid in the ear may prevent ears from popping as the thickened fluid blocks the auditory tube, which prevents fluid from draining into the back of the throat. Sometimes this is caused by infection. Another reason for retaining fluid in the ear is due to the enlargement of surrounding structures, such as the adenoids or sinus tissue. If the auditory tube is being blocked by surrounding tissue, the removal of this tissue may also be necessary.

Fluid in the ear is usually treated by the surgical insertion of synthetic ear tubes, which allows the ear to drain and equalize pressure. You should know that if you have ear tubes, you will not be able to have your ears pop. This is because the tube through your ear drum will automatically equalize pressure.  Other names for fluid in the ear include serous otitis media, glue ear, and otitis media with effusion.

Excessive Ear Wax

Too much ear wax (cerumen) can also impair the function of your auditory tube.

This doesn't mean you should run out and buy some ear candles or stick a cotton swab down your ear, as this will likely just push the wax down further. This type of ear wax blockage needs to be removed by a professional, preferably an ear, nose and throat doctor. There are a few ways that your doctor can remove the wax, and it can be done in their office. Wax can be removed with special ear drops that dissolve the wax, by irrigation, or with a special instrument called a cerumen spoon, which the doctor uses to "dig" the wax out.

Congestion

Too much mucus can gum up your auditory tube and make it difficult to maintain the pressure in the middle ear space.

Congestion related to allergies can be helped by taking a decongestant medication before getting on an airplane or going on a road trip with elevation gain. A cold virus is also a common cause of congestion, but if it lasts longer than about three weeks, you may be dealing with allergies or another condition that should be evaluated by a physician.

Patulous Eustachian Tube

Patulous eustachian tube is a very rare disorder in which the auditory tube fails to close and remains open all of the time. Besides feeling as though your ears are plugged, symptoms of patulous eustachian tube include:

  • tinnitus
  • autophony (when your voice seems abnormally loud to you)
  • hearing your own breathing.

Other Reasons

Some of other reasons you may experience eustachian tube dysfunction include:

Usually an ENT will be able to help control symptoms from any of the above problems with either medications or surgery. However you have to plan ahead and have these issues resolved before traveling if you want to maximize your enjoyment while minimizing any pain associated pressure changes.

A Word From Verywell

Ear problems that affect your ability to equalize pressure can be quite bothersome and impact your ability to enjoy activities such as traveling by plane and scuba diving. Sometimes you won't know you have a problem until you are already participating in the activity. If your ears do not pop and you feel as though they are clogged or you are experiencing significant ear pain, you should make an appointment with a doctor. If you have symptoms of a ruptured ear drum, such as fluid or blood draining from the ear, an intense earache followed by a pop and sudden relief of pain, or difficulty hearing, you should see a doctor immediately.

Sources:

American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery. (2016). Ears and Altitude. Access May 28, 2017 from http://www.entnet.org/content/ears-and-altitude.

Medline Plus. Wax Blockage. Accessed May 28, 2017 from: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000979.htm

New England Journal of Medicine. Patulous Eustachian Tube. Accessed: May 28, 2017 from http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMicm040779

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