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It’s one of the worst parts of flying: You finally hit that cruising altitude, and suddenly, you have ear congestion — that feeling that your ears are somehow plugged up.
Plugged-up ears are so common when traveling by airplane that there’s actually a special name for it: airplane ear. However, flying isn’t the only reason why your hearing might become muffled and you suddenly need to pop an ear.
Family medicine specialist Matthew Goldman, MD, explains how to unclog your ears, what causes them to feel plugged up in the first place and how to safely pop your ears if you feel the need to relieve the pressure.
How to pop your ears safely
Having plugged-up ears is an annoying problem at best and a frustrating, painful one at worst. Sometimes, a clogged ear will go away by itself, but Dr. Goldman shares a few ways you can try to relieve the pressure and get your ears to pop.
Open your Eustachian tubes
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Between the area behind your eardrum and the back of your nose and throat is a tube called the Eustachian tube. You’ve got two of them — one behind each ear. “This tube helps to maintain balanced air pressure between the area behind the eardrum and the area outside of the eardrum,” Dr. Goldman explains.
If you’ve ever had clogged ears, there are two methods you can try to unclog them. The pressure these two maneuvers create can help open your Eustachian tubes. Research shows that these two methods have about the same success rate at unplugging, or “popping,” your ears.
The Valsalva maneuver
Close your mouth and pinch your nostrils closed. Then, breathe out forcefully — but don’t let any air escape through your mouth or nose.
The Toynbee maneuver
Close your mouth, pinch your nostrils closed and swallow.
Swallow or yawn to equalize the pressure
Your Eustachian tubes are typically closed, opening when you perform activities like swallowing and yawning. So intentionally doing these things may help unclog your ears, especially if there’s no underlying cause like allergies or an infection.
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“There are different ways to equalize the pressure that creates the plugged-up sensation,” Dr. Goldman says, including chewing gum, swallowing and yawning.
Use a saline spray
Using a nasal spray can relieve sinus blockage and inflammation, which can ultimately help unplug your ears. Just be sure you’re using the nasal spray correctly by aiming it toward the back of your nose rather than toward your septum (the middle of your nose).
Address the underlying condition
Have you ever known someone who gets recurrent ear infections and has to have ear tubes put in? This is one of a few ways doctors can address chronic Eustachian tube dysfunction, which is common in children.
Why your ears get plugged up to begin with
Dr. Goldman says plugged ears can be uncomfortable and occur for a few reasons, including:
- Changes in air pressure. “Sudden pressure changes like driving upward into the mountains and scuba diving can also create this sensation,” Dr. Goldman says. As the pressure changes around you, the air pressure inside of your inner ears tries to adjust along with it.
- Ear infections. When infected fluid gets trapped behind your eardrum, it can swell and bulge, leading to ear infections, which cause pain and that plugged-up feeling.
- Swimmer’s ear. An infection in the lining of your ear canal, known as swimmer’s ear, can also cause blocked ears. This is an infection of your external ear, rather than your middle ear.
- Sinus infections. “Sinus infections can change the pressure behind your eardrum,” Dr. Goldman notes.
- Allergies. Achoo! Allergies come with a lot of unpleasant symptoms, and you can add plugged-up ears to the list.
- Eustachian tube problems. “Sometimes, when there is an imbalance between the air pressure within the Eustachian tube and the pressure outside of the eardrum, we may feel a plugged-up sensation,” explains Dr. Goldman. In some cases, you may have a condition that directly affects your Eustachian tubes. “Rarely, growths may affect the Eustachian tubes, which can create issues,” Dr. Goldman says, “and being born with abnormally shaped Eustachian tubes can also be a cause.”
When to call your doctor about plugged ears
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“Most of the time, these are all safe and effective methods,” Dr. Goldman says, “but depending on the cause, these methods could be unsafe and could even cause damage.”
If you’re traveling in high altitude changes or know you’re in the midst of an allergic flare-up, your clogged ears likely aren’t a problem and should resolve pretty quickly. But clogged ears that persist or are accompanied by other symptoms can indicate a more serious issue. Pay attention to issues like:
- Hearing loss
In these cases, it’s time to see your doctor, who’ll be able to determine the root cause of your issues and figure out a treatment plan.
If you’re experiencing something like swimmer’s ear or allergies, you can best treat your plugged-up ears by treating the medical condition that’s causing them.
“Depending on the cause, antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays and occasionally surgery may be needed to help manage and/or treat the root of the problem and/or mask the symptoms until the cause has resolved,” Dr. Goldman says.