Chewing gum, frequently yawning, and taking prescription or OTC medications are just a few ways to relieve ear pressure
Why is there pressure in my ear? | Causes | Symptoms | Complications | Relief | Surgery | When to see a doctor
If you have ever felt like your ears were stuffed or clogged, especially when flying on an airplane or driving through the mountains, you likely have experienced “airplane ear,” or ear barotrauma. Barotrauma of the ear is an injury caused by increased pressure and can cause ear pain or eardrum damage. The good news is that there are several things you can do to reduce uncomfortable symptoms of ear pressure, such as swallowing, chewing gum, and taking prescription or over-the-counter medications. Continue reading to learn more about ear pressure.
Why is there pressure in my ear?
Eustachian tubes are small tubes that connect the middle ear to the back of the throat. The air pressure in the middle ear is generally the same as the air pressure outside the body. The eustachian tubes have a job—they equalize pressure and help drain fluids. By doing so, they prevent barotrauma and infections. However, in some cases, eustachian tube function may be disrupted, leading to symptoms of pain, pressure, and a feeling of fullness in the ear.
Ear pressure causes
Ear barotrauma can result when there is a pressure difference between the inside and outside of the ear. It can happen with rapid changes in pressure due to:
- Air travel
- Scuba diving
- Diving to the bottom of a swimming pool
- Driving through the mountains
- Riding in an elevator
- Hyperbaric oxygen therapy
- Exposure to explosions
In many cases, one of these events alone will not cause ear barotrauma. But a blockage or fluid accumulation may cause the eustachian tube not to work properly. Then, air cannot be equalized, and a vacuum occurs, which stretches the eardrum and can cause pain, and may cause fluid as well. Some common reasons for ear congestion and eustachian tube problems may include:
- Allergies (allergic rhinitis or hay fever), sinus infections or sinus congestion, or colds (upper respiratory infection): These conditions may cause a stuffy nose, and when the nasal membranes are swollen, they can extend into the eustachian tube and block it, causing stuffy ears
- Infection, including middle ear infection (also known as otitis media, causing ear pressure, pain, fluid drainage, and other symptoms) or swimmer’s ear (also known as otitis externa, when water and moisture become trapped in the ear canal)
- Eustachian tube dysfunction (when the eustachian tube does not work properly and may cause pain, pressure, and excess fluid buildup) or other anatomical abnormalities that affect eustachian tube function such as a deviated septum
- Exposure to smoke—including people who smoke or who are exposed to secondhand smoke: smoke irritates the eustachian tube, which can cause pain, fluid, and infection
- Pregnancy: some pregnant individuals will experience eustachian tube dysfunction during pregnancy
Symptoms of ear pressure
The main symptoms in people with ear pressure are pain or discomfort in one or both ears and an uncomfortable plugged-up sensation in the ear(s). This may be accompanied by dizziness and possibly a slight hearing loss.
Complications of ear pressure
While many cases resolve on their own, there is a possibility that complications could arise, including dizziness, ringing in the ears, hearing loss, or a ruptured eardrum.
How to relieve ear pressure
The treatment to relieve ear pressure may vary, depending on the underlying cause of the ear pressure. For example, a bacterial middle ear infection will be treated with antibiotics such as Augmentin (amoxicillin and clavulanic acid) or amoxicillin. Swimmer’s ear may require antibiotic ear drops or possibly an oral antibiotic. Ear discomfort due to allergies may be alleviated by allergy medication such as Claritin (loratadine) or Xyzal (levocetirizine). A saline nasal rinse (to clean the nasal passages) and humidifier may help with sinus pressure or pain. OTC pain relievers can help with general ear pain. You can use a free SingleCare card from our website or mobile app to help pay for the cost of your medications.
Regardless of the cause, here are some general tips on how to open the eustachian tube and relieve ear pressure:
- Chew gum or suck on hard candy (adults and older children)
- Give younger children or babies a bottle or pacifier (or nurse them)
- Yawn and swallow frequently
- Gently blow your nose
- Try to pop your ears—pinch the nose closed, close the mouth, and then gently blow out through the nose while keeping it pinched shut. Stop when one ear pops. Blowing too hard can tear the eardrum, so do it gently and carefully.
- When flying, staying awake during takeoff and descent of the plane is a good idea. Throughout the flight, drink liquids, chew gum, yawn, and swallow frequently. You can also try wearing Earplanes to minimize pressure changes. For babies and young children, it may help them to nurse or bottle feed, or suck on a pacifier.
- Talk to your healthcare provider, specifically an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist, for more information and recommendations. People who experience ear barotrauma may be prescribed or recommended various treatment options like steroids or over-the-counter decongestants to use before the expected ear pressure event. For example, you may be instructed to take oral or nasal steroids before flying and use oral decongestants (such as Sudafed) and nasal decongestant sprays (such as Afrin) 45 minutes to an hour before the plane lands. Note that oral decongestants are not appropriate for everyone, so check with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before using them. Nasal decongestant sprays like Afrin should not be used for more than three days at a time, or they could cause rebound congestion, making symptoms worse.
- Scuba divers should go down and come up slowly. Avoid diving when you are sick, or your allergies are bothering you.
Surgical procedures for chronic ear pressure
People with eustachian tube dysfunction, frequent ear infections, or other chronic conditions that cause ear pressure may need surgery if other treatments do not work. The most common surgery is a myringotomy (a small cut is made in the eardrum) with tube insertion (an ear tube is placed in the eardrum, which helps allow pressure to equalize and fluid to drain).
If, on the other hand, your eardrum ruptures and the hole is large or does not close on its own after some time, your doctor may recommend eardrum reconstruction surgery.
When to see a doctor
There are various causes and treatments for ear pressure, and often, ear pressure can be resolved by treating the underlying cause. However, if your ears feel clogged for more than a short time—or are accompanied by other symptoms like fever, severe ear pain, fluid/discharge, dizziness, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), hearing loss, or other concerning symptoms, consult your healthcare provider. If a foreign object is in the ear, get medical attention immediately. Hearing loss can also indicate a medical emergency, so get medical help immediately if you experience hearing loss.