How to Unclog Ears Safely and Effectively

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
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Clogged ears can result from many causes, including excess earwax, sinus infections, allergies, plane flying, and swimming. Some home remedies can unclog ears. In some cases, medical treatment may be necessary. The feeling of clogged ears can occur when you have excess earwax or when congestion develops in your eustachian tubes. These are the thin tubes that connect your ears to your throat.

Viral infections or allergies can cause mucus to build up in your eustachian tubes. In certain situations, congestion can occur when there is a rapid altitude change, such as when riding in an elevator or during takeoff and landing on a plane.

Most of the time, you can unclog your ears safely with simple exercises or treatments at home. In some cases, clogged ears may result from an infection or another condition that requires medical care.

This article will provide tips and remedies to help unclog ears, as well as information about when to contact a doctor for clogged ears.

Valsalva maneuver

You may know the Valsalva maneuver by the term “popping your ears.” This technique helps equalize the pressure in your eustachian tubes.

To perform the Valsalva maneuver, close your mouth and pinch your nose. Act as though you are blowing air out of your nose. You will typically feel a popping sensation in your ears that relieves the feeling of clogged ears.

Yawning or swallowing

The action of yawning or swallowing can also help equalize pressure. In a 2010 article on the Federal Aviation Administration, an aviation instructor notes that passengers swallow less often when they are asleep. For this reason, he advises pilots to notify passengers before starting a descent so they have an opportunity to clear their ears.

Chewing gum or sucking hard candy

Woman standing outside blowing bubble with pink bubblegum
Michela Ravasio/Stocksy United (person appearing is a model and used for illustrative purposes only)

Chewing gum or sucking on hard candy can also make you swallow more often, helping keep your eustachian tubes clear.

If you have a baby who may have clogged ears, offering a pacifier for them to suck can help relieve symptoms in the same way.

Homemade ear drops

If your symptoms are due to excess earwax, you can try using homemade ear drops to soften the wax.
This makes it easier for the wax to drain from your ears.

Options for homemade ear drops include:

  • warm olive oil
  • warm water
  • almond oil

If you have clogged ears after swimming, you can use a homemade mixture to help clear water from your ear. This can consist of rubbing alcohol or equal parts rubbing alcohol and vinegar. The drops encourage evaporation to clear excess water from your ear.

However, it is very important to avoid any type of ear drop if you might have a perforated ear drum or if you have ear tubes. Talk with your doctor before using any type of ear drop.

Over-the-counter earwax removal drops

A variety of over-the-counter (OTC) ear drops are available that can help clear excess earwax. Again, contact your doctor before using any type of ear drops to make sure they are safe for you to use.

Humidifier

Allergies can cause nasal and sinus inflammation, which can affect the eustachian tubes and cause clogged ears.

Moist air is a natural way to help clear nasal congestion. Sleeping with a humidifier in your room can help keep nasal and sinus passageways moist, easing irritation that may also affect your ears.

Nasal decongestants

OTC nasal decongestants are another option to treat nasal congestion that may cause clogged ears. These include:

  • oxymetazoline (Afrin) nasal spray
  • pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) pills
  • fexofenadine and pseudoephedrine (Allegra-D)

It is important to note that while these medications can be very effective in the short term, they can become habit-forming. They are not meant to be long-term treatments. Doctors advise taking nasal decongestants for 2–3 days at a time, with breaks between.

If your clogged ears are a symptom of seasonal allergies, you can help relieve symptoms with OTC allergy medications including:

  • fluticasone (Flonase)
  • loratadine (Claritin)
  • cetirizine (Zyrtec)

If you have chronic allergies, your doctor may refer you to an allergist. They may recommend long-term treatment such as allergy shots.

Medical treatments

When home remedies or OTC medications are not effective at unclogging ears, your doctor can discuss medical treatment options.

Contact your primary care physician if you have symptoms that do not go away or get worse, including:

  • ears that do not unclog with home treatment
  • persistent or worsening pain
  • sound of ringing in your ears, a condition known as tinnitus
  • trouble with balance

Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor may refer you to an otolaryngologist, more commonly known as an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor. They may recommend treatments include the following.

  • Prescription ear drops: If OTC drops are not effective, your ENT doctor can prescribe a stronger medication. This may happen with an infection like swimmer’s ear, known medically as otitis externa.
  • Ear irrigation: If you have excess earwax, your ENT doctor can flush out your ear with a combination of water and hydrogen peroxide. Your doctor can also discuss other methods of cleaning out earwax.
  • Antibiotics: If you have a bacterial sinus or ear infection that causes clogged ears, your ENT may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.
  • Myringotomy: This is a procedure in which a doctor creates a small hole in the eardrum to allow fluid to drain.
  • Tympanostomy tube placement: Known more commonly as ear tubes, this procedure often occurs with myringotomy. Doctors place a small tube in the eardrum incision to help with fluid drainage.
  • Balloon dilation: In this procedure, doctors push a flexible tube called a catheter through the nose to place a small balloon in the eustachian tube. They then inflate the balloon to open up the tube and allow mucus to drain.

What should you not do to unclog ears?

While many home remedies work to unclog ears, there are some popular methods that doctors do not recommend.

Ear candling

Ear candles, or ear candling, is a method in which people use long, thin candles to remove earwax. The steps include placing one end of the candle in your ear, then lighting the other end.

Proponents claim that the warmth creates suction that draws out wax and other buildup. However, there is no scientific evidence that ear candles help soften or remove ear wax.

Cotton swabs

Doctors advise against inserting cotton swabs — or any object — into your ears, since they can actually pack wax farther in instead of helping remove it.

Frequently asked questions

These are some questions people often ask about how to unclog ears. Nicole Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP, reviewed the answers.

How can you unclog ears in babies?

If you are flying with your baby, it can help to encourage your baby to swallow to keep their ears open. You can do this by offering a bottle or pacifier during takeoff and landing. If your baby is chronically fussy or tugging on their ears, it could indicate an ear infection. Contact your pediatrician to get a diagnosis and start treatment.

Will a clogged ear go away by itself?

Depending on the reason for your clogged ear, the feeling of blockage may subside on its own. For example, if you are flying, your ears may clear once you land. If your clogged ear does not go away or does not improve with home treatment, contact your doctor.

Are clogged ears a symptom of COVID-19?

Doctors have not identified clogged ears specifically as a symptom of COVID-19. However, a 2021 study showed that participants with COVID-19 had many other ENT symptoms. These included sore throat, nasal congestion, and runny nose.

Summary

Home remedies to unclog ears including using the Valsalva maneuver to “pop” your ears, chewing gum, sucking on hard candy, and yawning. These all help equalize the pressure in your eustachian tubes, which are the tubes that connect your ears to your throat.

Clogged ears can result from many different conditions, some that require medical treatment. Contact your doctor if you have clogged ears and your symptoms do not improve with home care.

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 27
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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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