What It Really Means When Your Ears Feel Clogged

When things sound dull or there's a feeling of pressure in your ears, it could be because your ears are clogged. But what could that mean?

Our ears are complex mechanisms made up of many parts, and they're crucial for both hearing and balance (via the University of Rochester Medical Center). The ear is made up of four main parts: the outer ear, eardrum, middle ear, and inner ear. The outer ear consists of the parts that we can see, also called the pinna or auricle, along with a canal that connects it to the middle ear. They are divided by the eardrum, a membrane stretched thin like a drum that produces sound and protects the middle ear (via Verywell Health). The middle ear contains three small bones that transmit sound to the inner ear, as well as the Eustachian tube, a canal that connects it to the back of the nose and helps to equalize pressure. Lastly, there's the inner ear, which includes important nerves and receptors for hearing and balance.

With such a complex bodily system, it seems like there could be any number of reasons for feeling like your ears are clogged.

What that clogged feeling might mean

A common reason for clogged ears is impacted earwax, according to Healthy Hearing. This can happen when earwax, a natural lubricant and sticky self-cleaning medium, gets trapped in the ears. This buildup can be due to too-deep cotton swab use or simply an overproduction of earwax (via Cedars-Sinai). While it's tempting to try to dislodge the earwax at home, your healthcare provider will be able to provide the best treatment, such as irrigation or medicinal drops.

Another typical reason for your ears feeling clogged is fluid in the ear, which can develop due to a middle ear infection or water getting stuck in the Eustachian tube after bathing or swimming (via Healthy Hearing). Trapped water will usually come out on its own. However, you can also call your healthcare provider if the pain becomes severe. Sinus pressure is another common culprit for clogged ears. When the sinus cavities become inflamed, the Eustachian tubes can swell, putting pressure on the eardrum and causing a feeling of fullness or pain. Usually, the feeling will go away as the sinus congestion clears.

Noise damage can also cause your ears to feel clogged. Ever been to a loud concert or sports stadium and felt a tight ringing feeling in your ears afterwards? Excessive noise could cause harm to hair cells, membranes, and nerves inside your ear, especially the cochlea (via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Less likely culprits

The aforementioned reasons are the usual explanations behind ears that feel clogged. However, there are some less common — but more worrisome — conditions to be aware of.

While it's not a common symptom, earache could be a sign of COVID-19 (via Healthy Hearing). Since COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, it could cause congestion, sinus pressure, and ear pain. Meniere's disease, a chronic condition of the inner ear, can cause ear discomfort due to an unusual amount of fluid in the ear (via the Mayo Clinic). Additional symptoms can include hearing loss, vertigo, and ringing in the ear. Meanwhile, an outer ear infection, also known as "swimmer's ear," can cause the ears to feel clogged or muffled (per Healthy Hearing). This can sometimes be accompanied by discharge.

If you're feeling concerned about your ears, don't try to solve the problem at home. Putting cotton swabs in your ears could impact wax further or cause damage to the eardrum. Instead, seek the help of a doctor or audiologist.