Why Do I Hear Crackling in My Ear? Causes and Treatment

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
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Ear wax, congestion, or other conditions can cause tinnitus or a crackling sound in your ear. Some of these causes are benign, and others may require medical care. Some cases of crackling sounds in the ears can occur due to tinnitus.

Tinnitus can vary from person to person. Some people may hear crackling. Others may describe a popping or sizzling sound. Other people hear roaring or buzzing sounds.

This article explains some causes of crackling in the ears, diagnosis of related conditions, and when to seek medical care. It also discusses treatment and answers some frequently asked questions.

Learn more about how tinnitus develops.

Earwax buildup

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Earwax, also called cerumen, is a waxlike substance made by the cells lining the ear canal. Earwax protects the ear canal, keeps it clean, and maintains health.

Earwax usually clears itself out to prevent excessive buildup. However, disruption of the clearing can build excessive wax and cause tinnitus or hearing loss.

Earwax buildup may occur due to:

  • the use of hearing aids
  • the use of cotton buds in the ear canal
  • previous surgery
  • excess hair in the ear canal 
  • a narrow or twisting ear canal

Treatment

At-home remedies for earwax buildup include over-the-counter (OTC) wax softening drops and irrigation tools to gently flush the softened wax. However, these remedies are suitable only for people with intact eardrums.

A doctor or pharmacist can tell you how to safely use drops and irrigation. Also, a doctor can help remove earwax buildup.

Eustachian tube dysfunction

Both of your ears have a eustachian tube, also called an auditory canal, that connects your middle ear to the back of your upper throat. The eustachian tube keeps the pressure in your ears stable, protects your ears from loud sounds, and helps prevent infection. 

Typically, the tube remains closed but opens when you swallow, yawn, or chew. This movement regulates the pressure.

However, if the tube does not open and close as it should, or external pressure increases stress on the tube, tinnitus can develop or you may hear popping or crackling sounds. It may also reduce hearing.

Causes of eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD) include:

  • external pressure changes, such as during sea diving or descent from altitude in a plane
  • rhinosinusitis
  • sinus congestion, such as due to:
  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • structural differences

Treatment

Treatment for ETD will depend on the underlying cause.

Some causes, such as a mild common cold or descent from altitude, may be relatively benign or temporary and not require any clinical treatment. Other causes, such as cystic fibrosis and GERD, may require clinical care.

Ear or sinus infection

Infections of the ear or surrounding areas, such as the sinuses, may cause tinnitus or crackling sounds.

A middle ear infection, also called acute otitis media, is one of the most common illnesses in children ages 6–24 months, although it can happen to anyone at any age.

Treatment

The immune system may be able to heal a mild ear infection. Treatment options such as OTC pain relief can help alleviate discomfort.

Infections that last more than 2–3 days will require clinical care. Doctors may prescribe antibiotics for bacterial infections.

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, also known as TMDs, are a group of conditions that may cause dysfunction, pain, or both in the jaw’s joints and surrounding muscles. As a result, they may cause tinnitus.

There are more than 30 TMDs, which include three main types:

  • disorders of the joints
  • disorders of the chewing muscles
  • headaches associated with TMD

Commonly, TMDs can occur temporarily and get better on their own. However, other cases can last long term.

Injuries can cause TMD, but sometimes the cause is unknown. TMD could relate to genetic, psychological, and environmental sources of stress, researchers say.

Treatment

Treatment for TMDs may include:

  • allowing your jaw to rest, such as by eating soft foods
  • applying warm or cool compresses to the jaw
  • taking OTC or prescription pain medications
  • limiting jaw clenching, chewing gum, or biting the nails
  • undergoing therapeutic options, such as:

Meniere’s disease

Meniere’s disease occurs after fluid buildup in the inner ear. It typically affects only one ear at a time and most often affects people 40–60 years old. 

The condition can cause: 

  • severe dizziness
  • ringing in the ears
  • pressure in the ear
  • hearing loss

The dizziness can become so severe that a person may fall.

Treatment

Meniere’s disease treatment options alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life. Options include:

  • medications
  • middle ear injections
  • surgery
  • dietary changes such as salt restriction
  • cognitive therapy

Other possible causes

Tinnitus or hearing crackling and other sounds in the ears can develop or worsen due to other factors and conditions, including:

  • injury
  • cardiovascular conditions
  • noise-induced hearing damage or loss
  • gradual hearing loss
  • hormonal changes in people assigned female at birth
  • hormone therapy
  • thyroid conditions
  • brain tumors

Sometimes, there is no obvious or identifiable reason why a person develops tinnitus.

When to seek medical help

Crackling sounds that do not improve may require medical attention. Also, talk with a doctor if you experience crackling in your ears and:

  • pain
  • fever
  • discharge from the ear that contains blood or puss
  • dizziness
  • loss of hearing or difficulty hearing

Diagnosis

To reach a diagnosis, your doctor may ask about your symptoms and medical history and if there are any medications and supplements you are taking. They may also check your ears, nose, throat, and jaw.

Other testing may include:

  • hearing tests
  • testing your eardrum movement
  • imaging scans, such as a CT or MRI

Prevention

Preventing crackling in your ears may not always be possible, but there are steps you can take:

  • Chew gum or take sips of water while traveling through an altitude change. 
  • To prevent upper respiratory infections, maintain distance from others who may be unwell, and wash your hands frequently. 
  • Do not use cotton swabs to clean your ears. Swabs can push the earwax too far into your ear canal.
  • Try to avoid known allergens.
  • Wear ear protectors and reduce time spent in loud environments.

FAQ

Nicole Aaronson, MD, has reviewed the following frequently asked questions.

What causes crackling in the ear with no pain?

Several conditions may sometimes cause crackling in your ears without significant pain, including mild earwax buildup or mild eustachian tube dysfunction.

Also, symptoms from person to person can differ, so it is possible to experience pain or other discomfort and irritation with these conditions.

What causes crackling in the ear when swallowing?

Eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD) can cause crackling in your ears when you swallow. ETD occurs when the tube pressure in your ears cannot equalize, such as during a change in altitude or sinus congestion. 

Why do I hear a crackling sound in my ear when moving my jaw?

The sound may indicate temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD), which affects jaw movement. The condition can be temporary or long term.

Summary

The crackling sound you hear may be tinnitus, or ringing and buzzing in the ears. Temporary and long-term conditions can cause tinnitus.

Some causes, such as earwax buildup or eustachian tube dysfunction, can be quickly resolved. Other conditions may require medical treatment.

If you hear crackling that does not improve within a few days or occurs with painful symptoms, seek prompt medical care.

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 5
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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