A blocked ear not only affects hearing, but in some cases includes severe pain, fever or discharge from the ear. The ear blockage can be caused by a myriad of conditions, beyond a build-up of earwax, and it is therefore important to seek medical attention to ensure the most appropriate, safe and effective treatment for the blocked ear.
What conditions may result in a blocked ear?
There are several conditions that can cause a blocked ear, some common causes include:
- Earwax build-up: Earwax, also known as cerumen, is a natural substance produced by the outer-ear canal to help keep the ear clean. It normally falls out of the ear, however, sometimes this earwax build-up may become impacted in the ear canal causing hearing loss and a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear.
- Ear infection: An ear infection, also referred to as Otitis media can cause inflammation of the middle ear, resulting in a blocked ear. Cold and flu, and sinus infections can also be precursors for an ear infection. Ear infections are very common in children.
- Cold and flu: Illness from cold and flu can cause inflammation and congestion of the nasal passages and Eustachian tubes; the Eustachian tubes connect the middle ear with the back of the nose and throat, and can become blocked.
- Sinus infections: Sinus infections can cause inflammation and fluid build up in the sinuses, resulting in ear congestion.
- Allergies: Seasonal allergies can cause congestion and inflammation of the nasal cavities and ear canal, resulting in blocked ears. It can also lead to ear infection.
- Barotrauma: Barotrauma occurs when there is a change of pressure in the air, leading to blocked ears. Examples of when air pressure change may cause ear blockage is during flight and scuba diving.
- Foreign body: A foreign body or object may become lodged in the ear. Young children are susceptible to pushing small objects into their ears, but foreign objects such as insects may also enter the ear causing pain, swelling and blockage,
Ear syringing, also known as ear irrigation, may be used by a doctor to remove earwax or other foreign objects from the ear canal. This common procedure uses a device that delivers a gentle stream of water or saline solution into the ear to flush out the earwax and is most often used when other methods, such as ear drops or manual extraction, are not possible or impractical. A doctor may also recommend ear syringing for people who have difficulty cleaning their own ears, such as older persons or people with medical ailments.
We advise people against self irrigation using ear syringes or ear candling methods, as this can result in damage to the ear or push the earwax or foreign object deeper into the ear canal. It is best to make an appointment with a doctor to ensure that the procedure is completed safely and effectively.
Other treatment options for a blocked ear
Treatment options for a blocked ear are dependent upon the underlying cause of the blockage, but include:
- Earwax removal: If earwax is causing hearing blockage, then a doctor or nurse will safely remove the earwax using the appropriate equipment. This may involve, ear syringing to flush out the earwax, scraping it out with a precision tool, or suctioning it out.
- Medication: Antibiotics or antiviral medications may be prescribed if the blockage is caused by infection.
- Decongestants: If the ear blockage is caused by a cold or sinus infection, then your doctor may recommend a decongestant to reduce inflammation and congestion of the nasal passages and Eustachian tubes.
- Allergy medications: If allergies are causing blocked ears, then antihistamines or nasal sprays may be recommended to reduce symptom severity.
- Steroids: Steroids, including oral corticosteroids, may be prescribed to treat inflammation and swelling.
- Foreign object removal: Foreign objects may be removed with water irrigation, suctioning or other surgical instruments.
- Surgery: Surgery may be required in some cases to remove foreign objects or repair a damaged ear drum.
- Physical Therapy: Physical therapy such as the Valsalva maneuver, aka ‘popping ears’ may resolve blocked ears caused by Barotrauma.
- Waiting: Depending upon the nature of the blockage, a blocked ear may clear on its own without any intervention.
Treatment options for blocked ears will depend on the medical history of the patient and the underlying cause of the blockage. Your doctor will discuss with you the most appropriate treatment plan for your condition.
When should I see a doctor about a blocked ear?
If you have a blocked ear, and it is causing you discomfort or affecting your hearing, you should visit a doctor as soon as possible. Additionally, if the blockage is accompanied by other symptoms such as severe pain, fever, or discharge from the ear, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
If you suspect that you have a foreign object in your ear, it is important to seek immediate medical attention. The longer the foreign object remains in the ear, the more likely it is to cause complications.
However, if you have mild symptoms, such as a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear, and no other concerning symptoms, you may wait a few days to see if the symptoms improve on their own. If symptoms persist or worsen, then seek medical attention.