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What are the Most Common Causes of Stuffy Ears?

By Susan Grindstaff
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Stuffy ears are commonly caused by congestion associated with colds and allergies. Blockages or swelling within the tubes of the inner ear can also cause ears to feel stopped up and congested. In some cases, stuffy ears can be caused by wax buildup within the ear canal. Most of the time ear congestion is temporary and not considered a serious health risk.

In some cases, stuffy ears can be the result of an inner ear infection. This type of infection is very common in young children, and can sometimes cause high fever and severe earache. Treatment for inner ear infection usually involves a course of antibiotics, such as penicillin, and ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain and fever reduction.

Ear infections are typically located within the eustachian tubes. These tubes are located behind the eardrum in an area of the ear canal called the middle ear. The eustachian tubes are lined with mucus, and when people have colds or congestion, the tubes tend to produce more mucus and the lining of the tubes may become swollen and irritated. If the tubes swell too much, fluid inside the ear becomes trapped, and this can cause bacterial buildup. This buildup often results in bacterial infection within the ear canal.

Even without the presence of infection, inflammation inside the ear can cause stuffy ears and ear pain. Other causes of inflammation could include a foreign object lodged inside the ear canal or excessive deposits of ear wax. For people who believe they may have an object lodged within the ear, they should probably not attempt to remove it on their own, but should seek the assistance of a physician.

Frequent cleaning of the ears may help reduce the risk of stuffy ears resulting from excessive ear wax. In addition, ear drops may help dissolve ear wax that has built up deep within the ear. These drops are usually available without prescription at most pharmacies.

Another condition, sometimes referred to as “swimmer’s ear,” often causes stuffy ears, and is usually the result of water becoming trapped inside the ear canal. Symptoms of swimmer's ear include itchy and congested inner ear, and in some cases, hearing may be somewhat impaired. If drainage can be accomplished, sometimes swimmer’s ear will clear up without antibiotics. To induce drainage, some people use bulb syringes to draw out the fluid. Bulb syringes are available at most pharmacies.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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