Ear Pressure: What Causes It and Ways to Find Relief

By Jennifer Nadel, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 21, 2022

Ear pressure is an uncomfortable experience, sometimes even painful.

In many cases, the pain is short-lived and has benign causes.

Sometimes, however, it can be a symptom of an underlying medical condition.

The cause of ear pressure determines treatment, so it’s important to know what’s behind the discomfort. 

In this article, I’ll discuss ear pressure and its possible causes.

I’ll explain the symptoms and how healthcare providers may diagnose the potential condition.

Then, I’ll talk about treatment options and how to prevent ear pressure.

Finally, I’ll explore when to see a medical provider.

What is Ear Pressure? 

Ear pressure is the feeling of fullness and stuffiness in the ear.

It occurs when the eustachian tube is blocked or is not functioning correctly.

The eustachian tube is a structure in the ear that connects the middle ear with the upper throat and back of the nose.

It is responsible for regulating inner ear pressure and draining fluid from the middle ear to make it less prone to infections. 

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Causes

There are several causes of ear pressure, including the following.

Sinus Pressure and Congestion 

The sinuses are air-filled cavities in the head responsible for producing mucus, which helps to keep the nasal passage clean.

When mucus accumulates in the sinuses, it causes congestion. 

Sinus congestion can be caused by viral infections, bacterial infections, and allergies.

Some symptoms can include ear pressure, headache, reduced sense of smell, yellow or green mucus, and pain and tenderness around cheeks, eyes, or forehead.

Changes in Altitude 

A sudden change in altitude can block the eustachian tube.

In this case, the tube is unable to quickly equalize the pressure of the middle ear with the immediate environment.

It commonly occurs when doing things like flying on a plane and while scuba diving. 

Some symptoms include ear pressure, ear pain, dizziness, build-up of fluid in the ear, and rarely, temporary hearing loss. 

Ear Infection 

Ear infections can cause the feeling of fullness in the ear. 

The pressure experienced with middle ear infections, also known as otitis media, occurs when fluid is behind the eardrum and puts pressure on the eardrum.

Aside from ear pressure, other symptoms may include hearing loss, fever, ear pain, and ear discharge.

Swimmer’s ear, also known as otitis externa, occurs when trapped water causes a break in the skin of the ear canal making it more prone to infection.

It can also occur due to chronic skin conditions that can irritate the skin of the ear canal, such as eczema and psoriasis

Fungal infection of the ear, also known as otomycosis, is an outer ear infection.

It can cause the feeling of fullness in the ear, inflammation, itching, and ear discharge.

Otomycosis is common in people who live in warm, tropical climates.

Earwax Buildup 

Oil glands naturally produce ear wax in the ear canal.

It usually moves to the opening of the ear where it falls out or is washed out, but some people produce excess wax that builds up and blocks the ear.

This can cause ear pressure, muffled hearing, and itching.

Allergies 

In many areas in the United States, nasal allergy, also known as allergic rhinitis, is a major cause of chronic blockage of the eustachian tube

People sensitive to allergens such as pollen can experience inflammation in the membrane lining of the eustachian tube related to that.

This leads to abnormal ear pressure and may cause fluid build-up, itching, and ear pain. 

Barotrauma 

Ear barotrauma implies changes in the ear due to air or water pressure.

Most people experience barotrauma at some point in their lives. It can occur due to changes in altitude, nasal congestion, swelling of the throat, and blockage of the eustachian tube present before birth. 

Barotrauma can cause ear pressure, pain, dizziness, and hearing loss.

However, hearing loss from barotrauma is often temporary.

Foreign Object 

Depending on how deep they get, foreign objects trapped in the ear canal can create pressure in the ear. 

This is more common among children who tend to put things in their mouth, nose, and ear out of curiosity.

Items that may get stuck in the ear include beads, crayons, small batteries, and toys. 

Other than ear pressure, some of the symptoms include ear discharge, ear pain, and hearing loss. 

Meniere’s Disease 

Meniere’s disease is an inner ear disorder that affects both hearing and balance.

It typically occurs in only one ear but may later develop in both ears. 

The cause of Meniere’s disease is unknown.

However, some of its symptoms include ear pressure, severe dizziness, ringing in the ear, and hearing loss.

Cholesteatoma 

Cholesteatoma is a skin cyst that occurs in the middle ear.

It can be a defect present before birth or may develop after a chronic ear infection. 

The skin cyst may become infected or grow if left untreated.

It may also lead to complications such as meningitis, facial paralysis, and in rare cases, brain abscess.

Its symptoms include ear pressure, dizziness, ear discharge, and hearing loss.

Acoustic Neuroma 

Acoustic neuroma is a non-cancerous tumor that affects the nerves responsible for hearing and balance.

Although it is a slow-growing tumor, it can press against the brain, turning it into a life-threatening condition if it grows large. 

Symptoms can include ear pressure, loss of balance, ringing in the ear, dizziness, and loss of hearing on one side.

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders 

Temporomandibular joint disorders affect the joints that connect the lower jaw to the skull.

The cause of this condition is not fully known.

Some of the symptoms include discomfort in the ear, headache, and pain around the jaw.

Symptoms

Some of the symptoms of ear pressure, aside from the feeling of fullness in the ear, include:

  • Pressure-related ear pain
  • Discomfort
  • Muffled hearing

These are the general symptoms, but additional symptoms may be present depending on the cause.

Diagnosis

In addition to considering the feeling of fullness and stuffiness, a doctor will carry out a diagnosis based on the other symptoms that may be present.

In some cases, the doctor may use an otoscope to carry out an ear examination, checking for scratches, tears, holes, or signs of infection.

Treatment 

Treatment of ear pressure will depend on the diagnosed cause.

For example, if a sudden altitude change causes it, the feeling of pressure is usually temporary and will go away by swallowing or yawning to pop the ear. 

Over-the-counter decongestants will provide relief in the case of sinus infections. 

The doctor may prescribe medicine to help with pain  that accompany the condition.

They may recommend using ear drops to soften the wax or may use a syringe and warm water to remove blockages. 

The doctor may prescribe antihistamines to treat allergies and antibiotics in the case of bacterial infections.

Pressure in the ear caused by fluid build-up will usually go away once the condition causing it is treated.

Prevention

Although there is no proven method to prevent ear pressure, some ways to reduce the risk include:

  • Drying your ears after swimming
  • Chewing gum while flying 
  • Swallowing or yawning while flying
  • Avoiding foreign objects in the ear
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When to See a Medical Provider

If the feeling of fullness in your ear is persistent, you should see a healthcare provider, especially when it is accompanied by other symptoms such as:

  • Ear pain
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of balance
  • Loss of hearing
  • Facial weakness
  • Ear discharge

If you’re aware there is a foreign object in your ear that has not dislodged on its own, do not try to remove it yourself because you may push it further into your ear.

Instead, visit a doctor’s office where they can safely remove it.

How K Health Can Help 

Do you have a feeling of persistent fullness in your ear? You may need to consult with a doctor. Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes ear pressure?
Ear pressure occurs when the eustachian tube cannot properly regulate the air pressure in the ear. There are many causes, such as a sudden change in altitude, ear infections, foreign objects stuck in the ear, ear wax build-up, allergies, Meniere's disease, and acoustic neuroma.
Is ear pressure serious?
Ear pressure is typically not a serious condition, although it has some serious causes such as acoustic neuroma. It may be treated with simple actions such as yawning and swallowing. However, if it is persistent, you may need to see a doctor.
How do I get rid of ear pressure?
To get rid of ear pressure, you need to know the cause. If it is due to a sudden change in altitude from flying or scuba diving, yawning or swallowing may help. However, if it is due to underlying conditions such as ear infections, Meniere's disease, or acoustic neuroma, you will need to see a doctor for specific treatment plans.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Jennifer Nadel, MD

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.

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