Being ill can be a draining experience, but it’s usually the little things that get on our nerves the most, such as ear congestion (the feeling of ear pressure or fullness), a common occurrence when you have a cold or the flu.
This article explains why you get congestion when you’re sick, and more importantly, what you can do about it if you're having this experience right now.
How Are Illnesses and Ear Congestion Related?
The outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear all have their role to play in the proper functioning of your ears. This function can be affected by infections, allergies, and other illnesses.
The nose and ears are connected, so an illness rarely affects just one in isolation. Colds, flu, infections, and allergies can all make you feel 'bunged up' in both of these crucial sense organs. If your ear congestion is caused by colds, flu, or allergies, you’ll likely experience symptoms of ear congestion (a full, blocked-up feeling) along with sneezing, coughing, a stuffy nose, watery and itchy eyes, and general sickness — all symptoms that characterize illnesses and conditions of this ilk.
If you have ear congestion, you might feel ear pressure or fullness together with some sort of muffled hearing. Some people also experience crackling or buzzing noises.
A congested ear will usually go away on its own after five to seven days and generally isn’t something to worry too much about.
However, if your symptoms don’t ease and you start to experience ear pain, dizziness, ear discharge, or nose bleeding, you should make an immediate appointment with your doctor as these can indicate a more serious condition.
What Are The Illnesses That Cause Ear Congestion?
If you’re sick and have a congested ear, it won’t surprise you that a few common conditions and illnesses can cause a blocked ear.
As the Eustachian tube can react to allergens such as pollen and dust by becoming inflamed, this can cause an imbalance in-ear pressure and fluid buildup.
Allergies can cause a middle ear infection (otitis media) and when the lining of your middle ear is irritated this can block the Eustachian tube, creating a feeling of fullness or congestion. You might also experience some temporary hearing loss.
You should be able to get some Over-the-Counter (OTC) antihistamines such as cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratadine (Alavert, Claritin), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), fexofenadine (Allegra), chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), or levocetirizine (Xyzal) to help ease your symptoms.
When you have the flu your Eustachian tubes can get blocked and fluid can get trapped in the ear, pressing against the eardrum.
You might experience conductive hearing loss along with congestion. While this should go away, you might also develop sensorineural hearing loss if the flu virus attacks the middle ear, which is more serious.
Unless it's treated quickly, this hearing loss can be permanent. If you have the flu and experience a sudden loss of hearing, see a doctor immediately.
Influenza can lead to complications such as a decrease in your hearing acuity. Vasoconstrictor hearing drops might be helpful as can washing the nasal sinuses with isotonic solutions. As always prevention is your best friend — keeping healthy and getting vaccinated will help to prevent future influenza infections.
The common cold is just that, an extremely common illness. Everyone has had one at some point or another.
Your cold can be caused by an astounding 200 respiratory viruses, but usually presents in a similar way each time.
You’d expect to get a sore throat, runny nose, coughing, watery eyes, headaches and tiredness as your body attempts to fight it off. They usually develop gradually and most people can sense it coming, days in advance.
The nose, throat, and ears are all connected, so when a cold strikes, they’re all likely to suffer. When you feel congestion in your ears during a cold it is because of an inflammatory lesion of the throat and nose.
If you have a cold in the nasopharynx, a large amount of mucus is formed, disrupting the normal circulation of air in the Eustachian tube. As your ears are connected to the nasopharynx, this can cause painful symptoms in the ears. Sometimes a cold also means an increase in lymph nodes in the nasopharynx which plays a role in the hearing loss you might be experiencing.
If you have a sinus infection your nasal cavities will be swollen or inflamed due to an infection or an allergic reaction. A clogged ear, ear pain, and temporary hearing loss might occur with a sinus infection.
OTC pain medications and decongestants can help your symptoms, as can using nasal saline or a humidifier to add moisture to the air.
Are Some People More Prone to Ear Congestion Than Others?
You might feel like you’re always getting ear congestion when you’re ill, and way more often than your friends or family seem to.
If you think you’re more prone to ear congestion than other people, you might be right. Some people’s Eustachian tubes are naturally shaped in a way that makes them more prone to congestion when they have something like a cold. This could be the case for you.
Your Eustachian tubes could also be narrower or more horizontal than average (like children’s) which makes it much easier for fluid to collect, or you might have a greater amount of mucus at the opening of your Eustachian tubes which facilitates greater swelling when you come down with something.
How to Relieve Ear Congestion
When your illness goes away, so should your ear congestion. However, ear congestion is annoying and uncomfortable in the moment, and it's understandable that you probably want to reduce it as much as possible.
To ease your symptoms you’ll need to relieve congestion and swelling in the nose and throat to open up your Eustachian tubes. This can be done with home remedies, taking antihistamines for allergies, or by using nasal decongestants. Ultimately the best treatment will depend on the cause, so do some further research on your symptoms and speak to a doctor.
When Do You Need to See a Doctor?
Sometimes your sickness symptoms get better, but your ear congestion does not. This is the first sign that you might need to see a doctor for a check-up.
If you develop green nasal discharge along with sinus pain and fever, develop a fever on its own, or have a weakened immune system, asthma, or emphysema, visit a doctor as soon as possible.
If you are experiencing ear pain, fluid drainage, and hearing loss, this can indicate an ear infection. Although they can clear up on their own, ear infections often need to be treated with antibiotics. If you think you have an infection, you’ll need to see a doctor for a prescription.
Likewise, if your problems persist, go to the doctor. They’ll be able to give you a thorough medical examination and work out the best course of treatment for you. You might need steroid ear drops to reduce swelling or antifungal ear drops if there is a fungal infection.
If your congested ear has just appeared, there are some home remedies you can try for now. Alternatively, you can get antihistamines and decongestants to help reduce ear pressure or OTC pain relievers to relieve earaches.
To learn more about hearing health, see our other blog articles.
The information in this guide has been written using the following reliable sources: