Plugged ears? Here’s how to safely clean them

Clogged ears can happen to the best of us, making anyone wonder how to properly clean ears. While it’s annoying to deal with because it can cause temporary hearing impairment, mild pain, or a feeling of being off-balance, it’s fairly easy to clean your ears at home. Ears can become plugged for a few different reasons — too much earwax, water in your ear, a change in altitude (which is why you should chew gum when you take off and land in an airplane), a sinus or middle-ear infection, or allergies.

Obviously, if a clog persists or becomes painful, it’s best to consult your primary care physician or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor to determine if there is something more sinister happening or if there’s been inner-ear damage. For the most part, you should be able to treat plugged ears at home with relative ease. Here’s our advice for a safe way to clean ears.

man with trouble hearing
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

At-home remedies

There are safe ways to clean your ears if the clog is due to earwax, but it’s worth noting that your ears are self-cleaning, so technically, you shouldn’t remove earwax at all unless it becomes painful. There are also several at-home earwax products you can buy that use a gentle liquid in a syringe to flush out the ear canal (look for ones the contain hydrogen peroxide).

You can also try the Valsalva maneuver (aka “popping your ears”) to open the eustachian tubes. Just plug your nose and blow out while keeping your lips closed (it will puff up your cheeks). You shouldn’t need to blow very hard before feeling the instant relief of an unplugged ear.

Finally, you can try dripping mineral, olive, or baby oil into your clogged ear to clean it properly. Warm two tablespoons of oil, and use an eyedropper to put one to two drops in your ear. Keep your head tilted for 10 to 15 seconds, and then return your head to a neutral position, and the oil should help unplug your ears.

Call your doctor

If you’ve tried at-home methods and nothing is working, there are other options for clearing plugged ears that you can try, but you should always consult with your doctor before trying anything. Nasal decongestants and topical nasal steroids can be prescribed, but you have to be really careful how long you use them.

In severe cases, ventilation tubes can be put in to drain fluid and relieve pressure. Inner-ear tubes can also be used in babies and toddlers who get consistent ear infections, which can cause clogged eardrums and make them miserable.

cotton swabs
Photo by Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Avoid these methods entirely

Ear candles were once thought of as a safe way to clear earwax, but experts now say they can cause injuries such as burns or punctured eardrums. Also, do not, we repeat, do not use cotton swabs to clean your ears. They can cause wax to get pushed back further into your eardrum, which can cause ear damage. Being overly aggressive or using methods like cotton swabs to clear earwax can also result in hearing problems or ear canals that can become itchy, painful, or inflamed.

If the clog persists, your primary care physician can use an ear lavage to effectively clean the ear without causing damage or leaving room for infection. This is when warm water is flushed into the ear canal to clear away the earwax gently. Your doctor can also decide if the clog is because of an underlying condition or something your body can handle naturally on its own.

Your Eustachian tube, a small passageway that attaches your middle ear to the space behind your nose, can become clogged if it stays open or closed for too long, which can be frustrating and annoying because it’s responsible for the air pressure in your ear. Sometimes it’s so bothersome that it feels like you’d do anything to unclog it. But if the remedy sounds too good (or strange) to be true, it probably is.

Your ears are delicate beings, and their health isn’t something to be taken lightly. Be gentle in how you handle them because it’s one of your five senses, and losing it, even momentarily, can feel traumatic. Luckily, there are enough safe methods to try at home that will fix a clogged ear with minimal time or effort.

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