Most people assume that when their ears feel blocked it is because they have wax in their ear canals. However, blocked ears are not always caused by wax.
The most common reasons for a blocked feeling in your ear or ears are:
Wax blocking your ear canal
A small amount of wax in your ear canal is unlikely to cause a feeling of blockage. It’s more likely to just be be itchy and annoying. When there is sufficient wax to occlude (fill) the ear canal, then you will probably feel blocked. This is easily remedied by having your ear canals cleaned.
Infection of the skin of the ear canal
Infections within the ear canal can be caused by bacteria or fungi which reproduce in the warm moist environment of your ear canal. When there is sufficient bacteria or fungi in your ear canal it will become blocked. Normally these kinds of infections are itchy, and you may notice discharge from your ear canal, which may smell. Some of these infections are easily identified by the way they look, or by the way they smell. The recommended treatment is removing the infection through aural toilet (cleaning of the ear canal) and use of an appropriate antibacterial or antifungal medicine. Our nurse may need to take a swab of the material in your ear canal to send off for testing if it’s not obvious whether the infection is bacterial or fungal. Most infections require repeat visits to our ear nurse before they clear.
Dysfunction of the eustachian tube
The eustachian tube runs from the back of the nose and top of the throat to your middle ear. It normally opens through chewing, yawning and swallowing to equalise the pressure in the middle ear. Nasal congestion, an infection of the middle ear or sinus, or allergies may lead to problems with the way in which the eustachian tube operates. Nasal decongestants are normally recommended (by your GP or ORL surgeon) in the first instance, and if the dysfunction continues then surgery may be necessary. One of our audiologists can carry out a tympanogram which measures how well the middle ear is equalised, and gives an indication of the function of the eustachian tube.
Fluid in the middle ear
Persistent dysfunction of the eustachian tube may result in fluid building up in the middle ear. This fluid affects the ability of the ossicles (bones) of the middle ear to effectively transmit sound from the ear canal to the inner ear, and will cause a conductive hearing loss, which is generally temporary. The name for this condition is otitis media with effusion. If this fluid is infected, it can be quite painful. Otitis media with effusion can be identified by examination of the tympanic membrane under microscope, but we normally also recommend tympanometry be carried out, as this can provide an objective confirmation that there is fluid behind the eardrum.
Sudden sensorineural hearing loss
In rare cases, a feeling of blockage is not caused by any of the above conditions, but because of a change to the sensorineural hearing (i.e. a sudden deafness). This would normally only occur on one ear. The sudden hearing loss is caused by changes in the inner ear (cochlea), or on the nerve pathways between the ear and the brain. About half of the people who experience sudden hearing loss will recover, as long as they seek immediate treatment. This condition is identified by a diagnostic hearing assessment, carried out by an Audiologist. If we identify this type of problem we immediately write to your GP requesting that you start a course of steroids. We arrange a follow up hearing test 10 days later (at the completion of the course of steroids) and also refer you to an Otolaryngologist (Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon), for follow up at the same time.
Where to start?
As you can see, there are a number of reasons you may be experiencing a blockage of your ears. We recommend that in the first instance you book to see one of our Ear Nurses. The Ear Nurse will use a gentle technique to remove the blockage from your ear canal (if there is a blockage). If there is no physical blocking of the ear canal (by wax or infection) we would then recommend you see one of our Audiologists for a diagnostic hearing assessment.
Contact us here to talk to one of the team.