If you’ve ever flown, you most likely know the sensation of your ears plugging up. Irritating, right? Here’s why that happens.

The most common reason for ears to feel clogged or plugged is due to something called Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (Eustachian is pronounced “You-Station”). The Eustachian tube connects the back of the nose to the middle ear and serves to protect, ventilate and drain the middle ear when necessary to keep the air pressure equal on both sides of the eardrum. It is normally closed, but opens when we chew, swallow or yawn. 

Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD) occurs when something prohibits the Eustachian Tube from opening and closing. Symptoms of ETD can include:
• The sensation of fullness in the ear
• Muffled hearing  
• Discomfort created by a difference in air pressure between the ear canal and the middle ear space

Causes of plugged ears

There are multiple causes for Eustachian Tube Dysfunction:

  • Earwax
  • Congestion from a cold
  • Allergies or sinusitis
  • Ear infection
  • Large adenoids
  • Changes in altitude like when driving in the mountains or flying
  • Temporal Mandibular Joint (TMJ) Syndrome

Remedies for plugged ears

Methods for opening the Eustachian Tube, thus relieving clogged or plugged ears, include:

  • Yawning
  • Chewing gum
  • The Toynbee Maneuver (swallowing with the nose pinched shut)
  • The Valsalva Maneuver (gently blowing the nose with it pinched shut and the mouth closed) 

The goal is to allow the air pressure on both sides of the eardrum to equalize. If you hear a popping noise or experience a popping sensation, you have been successful in getting the Eustachian Tubes to open.  

If ETD persists for a few days or is accompanied by other symptoms such as sudden changes in hearing, tinnitus, dizziness, vertigo, pain, fever, or drainage from the ear, you should see a physician as soon as possible for evaluation and treatment.