There are numerous OTC, prescription, and natural treatments for stuffy ears. However, the exact treatment will depend on the underlying cause.
Ear congestion refers to a feeling of fullness in the ears. A person may feel that their ears are blocked or clogged. This can also lead to hearing problems, dizziness, and ear pain.
In this article, we will discuss different methods of treating ear congestion based on the cause.
Conditions that cause inflammation or blockage in the sinuses can also lead to blockage of the ears.
Examples of conditions that affect the sinuses and ears include:
- Sinusitis, or inflammation of the sinuses
- Infections like the flu or the common cold
- bacterial or viral sinus infections
- Smoking or contact with second-hand cigarette smoke
- structural anomalies
Treatments for sinus-related ear congestion vary depending on the underlying cause.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most sinus infections resolve independently and without medical treatment. However, a doctor can prescribe antibiotics if a person has a bacterial sinus infection.
Ear congestion related to sinusitis or viral infections like the common cold or flu will go away once the underlying condition or cause of the inflammation subsides.
Avoiding the irritants and allergens that cause sinusitis can also help relieve ear congestion.
To manage the symptoms of sinus disease and ear congestion, a person can:
- Inhale steam from a bowl of hot water or a shower.
- Use a humidifier or vaporizer.
- Place a warm, damp towel over your nose and forehead.
- Use decongestants or nasal sprays containing salt.
- Take OTC pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relieve pain and swelling.
- Do a nasal rinse.
Allergic rhinitis or nasal allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to allergens in the environment such as pollen, dust, or dander.
A 2019 article pointed out that allergic rhinitis can affect the ears as well. People with allergic rhinitis can experience:
- Pressure in the ear
- Ear popping
- Hearing loss
Allergic rhinitis can also lead to:
- runny or stuffy nose
- itchy watery eyes
- itchy mouth, nose and throat
- Difficulty breathing through your nose
- a headache
To relieve the ear congestion caused by allergies, a person can take allergy medications such as decongestants and antihistamines.
The National Center for Complementary and Inclusive Health (NICCIH) has found some evidence that suggests the following complementary treatments may help treat allergic rhinitis:
- Nasal irrigation
- Butterbur herbal supplements
The NICCIH also lists probiotics, honey, and pine bark extract as possible treatment options, but the results of recent studies provide conflicting or weak evidence to support their effectiveness.
Changes in altitude can lead to ringing in the ears.
This occurs when the air pressure outside the ear differs from the air pressure inside the Eustachian tubes. The Eustachian tubes are narrow channels that connect the middle ear to the upper throat and nasal cavity.
Changes in air pressure occur during air travel, deep sea diving, or whenever a person travels to higher or lower altitudes.
To relieve congestion in the ears due to differences in height, a person can try:
- Yawning or chewing gum on takeoff or landing
- Wearing a filtered earbud that will equalize the air pressure
- with an OTC decongestant spray
If possible, a person should descend or ascend slowly to allow the Eustachian tubes to equalize pressure in the middle ear.
You can also try performing the Valsalva and Toynbee maneuvers.
An older comparative study from 2011 with 35 volunteers found that both maneuvers had a success rate of 51.7%.
Learn more about how to safely open your ears here.
- Take a deep breath.
- Pinch your nose.
- Try to gently blow air through your nose while holding your mouth.
A person should be careful when performing the Valsalva maneuver to avoid tearing the eardrum.
- Pinch your nose.
- Close your mouth.
- Try to swallow.
A person may find it helpful to take a sip of water.
Ear wax, also called cerumen, is a waxy substance that the ear canal produces.
Having some ear wax is good. It helps clean and protect the ear canal. However, too much ear wax can lead to a condition called cerumen impaction.
The following symptoms may occur in people with excessive wax or cerumen impaction:
- Hearing loss
- Ear discomfort
- a feeling of fullness in the ear
- Tinnitus or ringing in the ears
- Ear infection
- Ear drainage
It is important to note that people should not be doing ear candling. This is because it is ineffective and can cause injury.
A person can use OTC earwax drops or wax removal kits.
People can remove excess wax at home using the following tips:
Hydrogen peroxide ear drops
When using ear drops, it is important to follow the directions on the package.
Typically, a person places up to five drops in the ear once or twice a day. You can do this for 3–7 days.
Find out more about hydrogen peroxide for ear wax exposure here.
Almond or olive oil
According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), a person can put two or three drops of almond or olive oil in the ear. You should do this twice a day for a few days.
Over 2 weeks the wax should fall out of the ear, especially during sleep when a person is lying down.
A person may prefer that a healthcare professional perform an ear irrigation. However, you can do an ear irrigation at home.
Learn more about how to do an ear irrigation at home here.
Ear infections can also lead to congestion in the ears. Ear infections occur when a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection develops in the middle ear.
The infection leads to inflammation and buildup of fluid in the Eustachian tube. Fluid retention can cause a feeling of fullness or congestion in the ear.
Anyone can get an ear infection. However, they are most common in children.
Symptoms of an ear infection include:
- Earache that gets worse while lying down
- Loss of balance
- Hearing loss
- a headache
Some ear infections will go away on their own without medical treatment. However, antibiotics may be needed for bacterial otitis media.
Getting plenty of rest and drinking clear fluids like water or tea can help an ear infection heal faster.
A person can use OTC drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve pain and fever.
Doctors can treat ear infections with topical antifungal drugs. You can also remove mushrooms with a small vacuum. This procedure is known as ear aspiration.
Meniere’s disease is an inner ear disease that causes severe dizziness or vertigo, tinnitus, and ear congestion.
Meniere’s disease symptoms occur when fluid builds up in the labyrinth of the inner ear. The labyrinth is made up of semicircular canals that regulate balance and the cochlea, which is responsible for hearing.
The exact cause of Meniere’s disease is unknown. However, the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) states that people develop this disorder as a result of:
- Autoimmune diseases
People can treat Meniere’s disease with prescription drugs, such as:
- Gentamicin injections
Alternative treatments for Meniere’s disease include:
- Limiting salt intake
- Limiting caffeine, chocolate and alcohol consumption
- Air pressure treatment
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- Operation to decompress the endolymphatic bag in the inner ear
Other causes of ear congestion are:
- Acoustic neuroma: This is a non-cancerous tumor that develops on the nerves in the inner ear.
- Cholesteatoma: This is a benign growth of skin that develops behind the ear drum.
- Serous otitis media: This is an infection of the cavity behind the eardrum.
- Problems with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ): This includes a number of conditions that affect the joints on the sides of the jaw that open and close the mouth. Temporomandibular joint disorders can occur as a result of abnormal jaw alignment, an injury, or teeth grinding.
People can often treat ear congestion with home remedies and OTC medications.
However, a person may want to speak to a doctor about their ear congestion if:
- Your symptoms persist despite home or OTC treatment
- You develop a fever
- You will experience fluid drainage from the affected ear
- You experience dizziness or loss of coordination
- You have severe earache
An ear congestion can be resolved by itself. Ears clogging can be caused by wax build-up, differences in altitude, infections and allergies.
While some causes of ear congestion do not require medical intervention, people should contact a doctor if their symptoms persist or if symptoms of a severe ear infection occur, such as:
- Fluid drainage
- severe earache
- Loss of appetite