Your hearing is muffled, your ears feel stuffed with cotton — and the feeling is probably extending into your head. Whether it’s the result of a sinus issue such as a cold or infection, or because you just got on or off of an airplane, stopped-up ears are uncomfortable.
If you’ve ever taken a trip by flight, you’re probably familiar with the effect it has on your ears. This is because the change in air pressure within the cabin stresses the eardrum and alters the balance of fluids in the ear canal. For most people, their ears begin to feel clogged at the beginning or end of a flight, when the plane is changing altitude rapidly, but for others the sensation may last longer, throughout the flight or after landing.
Airplane ear can usually be treated pretty easily: simple steps like yawning, chewing gum, and swallowing repeatedly can redistribute the fluids in the ear and adjust for the changes in pressure to relieve the sensation. For more stubborn cases, you can use the Valsalva maneuver, in which you pinch your nose shut and, while keeping your mouth closed, gently blow your nose; this forces air to the back of the nasal cavity, which helps open the sinuses. If the sensation persists for more than a day or so after flying or becomes painful, however, see a doctor, who may advise decongestants or nasal sprays.
If you haven’t been on a plane recently, your clogged ears may be due to a sinus condition. Your ears and nose are connected through the complex network of the sinus cavities, so if you have a cold or infection in one, you may also experience symptoms in the other.
Swelling in the eustachian tubes of your inner ear is responsible for the feeling of fullness or pressure you experience in the ears during a cold or sinus infection, and may even be slightly painful. As you heal, the swelling decreases, re-opening the tubes — but what to do until that happens? The same simple treatments used for airplane ear (swallowing, chewing, yawning, and gentle nose-blowing) can also help ease discomfort in these cases, but it’s also helpful to treat the symptoms of the cold or infection. Oral decongestants and nasal sprays are an option, but they should only be used for two or three days — any more can actually increase congestion, or be too drying. Staying well-hydrated thins mucus, which helps keep nasal cavities clear (and will help you get better more quickly).
If your clogged-up ears linger, become painful, or affect your balance, consult a doctor for more advanced treatment.