Your ears are probably one of those body parts you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. Obviously, they do a lot for you, but they typically do their job so damn well, you really don’t need to worry about them—until they get clogged.
When your ears are clogged (or plugged, as some people call it), it means that your eustachian tubes—which run between the middle of your ears and the back of your nose—become obstructed, according to the Mayo Clinic. As a result, your ears may feel full or pressurized and you might also have ear pain, dizziness, and muffled hearing. Basically, it’s a big PIA.
There are a bunch of reasons why your ears might get clogged, including a cold or sinus issue, change in pressure (think: flying or traveling to a higher altitude), and buildup of wax, says women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D. A buildup of ear wax, an ear infection, and swimmer’s ear, can also cause ear stuffiness, according to Jennifer Haythe, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.
It may seem like a good idea to shove a Q-tip in there to unclog your ear when it’s feeling stuffy, but Wider says that’s a big no-no. “Wax is in your ear to protect the inner ear and prevent infection,” she explains. “If you dislodge that, or push it further against the eardrum, it can harm the eardrum.” And that can have serious consequences, says Joshua Russell, M.D. “You should never put anything in your ear as you can rupture your tympanic membrane, or ear drum, which is very painful and can lead to infection and affect hearing,” he says. Your ears really just clean themselves, so you don’t need to take any daily action to work things out of them, Russell says.
But that doesn’t mean you have to just sit back and wait for your clogged ears to go back to normal—Wider says there are a few options you can try to unclog them. One is the valsava method, which involves holding your nose and blowing out. You can also move your jaw from side to side and swallow, she says. “Moving your jaw and swallowing helps to equalize pressure across the eustachian tube,” Wider says. “Valsava works the same way . increasing pressure.” If sinus pressure is causing the fullness, Haythe recommends yawning, chewing gum, or breathing in steam.
If your ears feel clogged after a plane ride or scuba diving, it’s a slightly different scenario—it’s usually due to a pressure difference between your inner and outer ear, Wider says. But some of the same remedies apply: Try the valsava method and moving your jaw from side to side to equalize the pressure.
And, if all else fails, call your doctor. Russell says they can determine the cause of the clog and even clean your ears out for you, if wax is the culprit.
.: Women’s Health
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