Experiencing ear fullness can be a discomforting experience and is often described as having increased pressure within the ears or the ears feeling clogged or stuffed. Common methods for temporally decongesting the ears, such as yawning and swallowing, don’t seem to help as your ears and hearing remain muffled or slightly impaired for the duration.
Having ear fullness is a common sensation experienced by many. Our ears are complex structures that have many parts required for the conduction of sound. Disease, infection, or even direct injury could lead to a compromise in ear function and lead you to experience the sensation of fullness in the ears.
Causes of ear fullness
The entire ear structure is comprised of bones, passageways, cavities, and fluid called endolymph. They all work together to help us hear and maintain balance. Factors that change any aspect of the ear structure can result in hearing and balance problems. Specifically, changes in inner ear pressure and fluid volume may make your ears feel full. The following are some causes of fullness of the ear.
Otitis externa: Commonly referred to as swimmer’s ear, it is characterized by inflammation of the ear canal—the tube running from the outer ear to the middle ear. Otitis externa can present with ear pain, swelling of the ear canal, and occasionally, decreased hearing. This may also present as fullness in the ear.
Otitis media: Refers to inflammation of the middle ear, which is part of the ear between the eardrum and the oval window (membrane covering the entrance to the cochlea in the inner ear). The bodies smallest bones are also located here and are called the auditory ossicles, named malleus, incus, and stapes. An important structure called the eustachian tube is also located here and can become obstructed during bacterial or viral infections, leading to symptoms. Patients affected often suffer from ear pain, varying degrees of hearing loss, ear discharge, and headaches.
Otitis interna: Also called labyrinthitis, as it is due to inflammation of a passage within the ear called the labyrinth. This passageway is responsible for both hearing and balance, with infection of this organ affecting both functions. This structure can be affected by an infectious or non-infectious factor including allergies, injury, and the use of certain medication.
Impacted ear wax: Ear wax can become dry and cover the eardrum. Constant use of cotton swabs can also lead to this condition, as their insertion into the ear canal pushes ear wax further back, leading to impaction. Due to this structure being a vital component in the conduction of sound, having a hard substance such as dry ear wax covering it can lead to the ear feeling full.
Eustachian tube dysfunction: An abnormality in the small tube that connects the area between the back of the nose and the upper part of the throat. The eustachian tube’s function is to circulate air within the middle ear, which plays a role in maintaining a balance between internal and external air pressure. The eustachian tube can often be seen in action during altitude changes when flying in a plane and you experience a popping sound in the ear. When there is a eustachian tube dysfunction, such as in the case of respiratory infection or an allergic reaction blocking the tube, fluid accumulation can occur. This leads the pressure inside to become higher than normal and possibly create the sensation of the ears feeling full.
Cholesteatoma: A cyst in the middle ear that can exert pressure on the eardrum and bones of the ear, possibly leading to ear structure damage. This damage leads to an infection that can spread to nearby areas within the skull, potentially leading to complications like abscesses in the brain, meningitis, or even cranial nerve damage. Symptoms include dizziness, pain, and hearing loss.
Symptoms of ear fullness
Particular symptoms will ultimately depend on the underlying cause of the condition leading to the sensation of ear fullness. The following are accompanying symptoms that may present along with feelings of clogged or congested ears.
- Pain and/or tenderness
- Itching (pruritus)
- Pus formation
- Sore throat
- Aches and pains
- Malaise or lethargy
It is important to seek medical attention if your ear fullness has not resolved over some time. While most infection tends to resolve on their own, with or without antibiotic treatment, a serious condition causing high fever, severe headache, and pain, as well as throbbing tenderness behind the ear, should be looked at by a physician.
Diagnosis of ear fullness
Considering that having fullness in the ear can be due to many different causes, it may be difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for its occurrence right away. When you visit your doctor, they will take a brief history of your presenting symptoms before performing a physical exam. This will often take the form of looking directly into the ears, making sure nothing is blocking the ear canals, and ruling out infection. A hearing test will also be conducted with the use of tuning forks. This helps separate conductive hearing loss from sensorineural hearing loss.
If the precise cause of your hearing loss cannot be found during your visit, your doctor will likely schedule you to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist. There, more advanced hearing tests will be conducted.
What are treatments for ear fullness?
The cause of your particular case of hearing loss will dictate the type of ear fullness remedy required. For example, if you have an ear full of wax, removing it with warm oil should resolve your hearing loss symptoms. If ear fullness is due to an infection, the use of antibiotics to help resolve it will help you be back to normal in time.
Using a warm compress placed over the ear can help alleviate pain and reduce swelling. But most importantly, the heat provided will make your ear pain feel much better. Warm compresses are also great for helping drain fluid accumulation due to infection or injury.
To relieve built up pressure within the ear structures, as experienced during a plane’s decent, sucking on a piece of candy can help alleviate ear pain and ear fullness. Additionally, you can relieve pressure by exhaling slowly though closed nostrils.