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Ear congestion typically refers to a feeling of fullness or blockage in the ears. It usually presents with other familiar symptoms of congestion in the ears, including a diminished ability to hear, often described as muffled hearing, and the presence of a crackling noise in the eardrum. The condition may be caused by any of a variety of conditions, mainly those that affect the middle ear.
The middle ear is connected to the back of the nose through the Eustachian tube. This tube carries out several vital functions, including helping to equalize air pressure on both sides of the ear drum. Rapid changes in altitude or pressure that occur when doing such things as flying in an airplane, mountain driving, or scuba diving can temporarily cause congestion as the ears work to adapt to the changes in pressure. Usually clogged ears caused by such changes in altitude will present with popping sounds, and pain is also a possibility.
Another major function of the Eustachian tube is to drain mucus from the inner ear. Colds, allergies, and sinus infections, however, can cause the tube to become inflamed or clogged with excess mucus. The resulting obstruction prevents the Eustachian tube from functioning properly, leading to ear congestion and fluid in the ear. A runny nose, head congestion, and watery eyes are some of the other symptoms to look out for.
One possible cause of ear congestion in the outer ear is ear wax. Ear wax is a waxy oil produced by the body to trap foreign bodies like bacteria and keep these materials from entering the ear drum. Normally ear wax simply falls out of the ears or is washed away. In other cases, however, the wax can accumulate, becoming hard and blocking the ear passage. The resulting ear congestion may block hearing and cause ear ringing and a feeling of fullness.
In many cases, ear congestion is a temporary nuisance that can be cleared up with home care. For instance, commercial treatments are available for removing ear wax, while commonly available products such as baby oil or mineral oil can also be used to soften the wax and remove it. Congestion related to fluid problems will usually clear up on its own once the infection improves. Over-the-counter decongestants or antihistamines may also help to relieve the pressure, while steam inhalation could be useful for softening the mucus causing the congestion and dislodging it.
When ear congestion lingers for more than 48 hours or is accompanied by pain not related to air travel, a visit to a medical professional is generally in order. The cause of the plugged ears might be an ear disorder or problem that cannot be effectively treated with self-care. For example, Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder causing extreme dizziness and hearing loss, causes some cases of ear congestion. A middle ear infection, a growth inside the ears, or a foreign object stuck within the ears could also be responsible.