Popping in the ear is most often associated with flying or traveling through a tunnel, scenarios that cause a rapid change in height or air pressure. While unpleasant, we understand that popping occurs in these situations, and it quickly goes away, returning our ears to their normal state.
However, in some cases your ears may pop despite staying in a single space, which can be confusing. If you experience constant ear popping, there are a few conditions that can cause this symptom, and the best way to determine the cause and begin treatment is to meet with a doctor.
What Can Cause Ear Popping?
Changes in Air Pressure
This is the most common cause of ear popping and can occur due to a variety of reasons. For example, when on an airplane during ascent and descent the altitude changes quickly, which can cause a pressure difference in the ear canal. Another typical instance of changes in air pressure is when going through a tunnel, which compresses the air.
Ear Wax Buildup
In some cases, your ears may keep popping because of a buildup of earwax.
Earwax is a beneficial compound that lubricates the ear canal and protects it from infection. It forms from secretions of the glands of the outer ear canal. This places earwax in the part of the ear canal closest to the opening of the ear, making it possible for the earwax to move out of the ear naturally.
However, your earwax may get stuck in the ear canal and cause a blockage, a situation that most commonly occurs when someone pushes the earwax deeper into the ear using a cotton swab. In other cases, the ear produces more earwax than it needs, which can also cause a buildup.
In addition to a popping or crackling in the ear, those with earwax buildup may also have symptoms of:
- ear pain or discomfort
- ears feeling full or clogged
- partial hearing loss
Eustachian Tube Dysfunction
The eustachian tubes connect the middle ear to the back of the throat and play a significant role in helping the ears drain fluid. These tubes also help to equalize pressure within the ear. Actions such as swallowing and yawning temporarily open the tubes, which helps to balance the pressure inside and outside the ear.
Eustachian tube dysfunction encompasses a range of disorders affecting the eustachian tube, including:
- obstructive eustachian tube dysfunction
- patulous eustachian tube dysfunction
- baro-challenge-induced eustachian tube dysfunction.
The type of eustachian tube dysfunction that most commonly results in ear popping is obstructive eustachian tube dysfunction, which occurs when the valve of the eustachian tube does not open properly. When this happens, the pressure in the ear cannot balance, and fluids cannot drain from the ear.
Some causes of obstructive eustachian tube dysfunction include:
- environmental allergies
- acid reflex
In addition to ear popping, those with obstructive eustachian tube dysfunction may also have symptoms of pressure and/or pain in the ears (which may be relieved when the ear pops), muffled hearing, and a sense of fullness in the ears.
Many types of illness can cause congestion in the sinuses, but when this congestion affects the ear, popping can occur.
Some illnesses that cause ear congestion include:
- common cold
- ear infection
- allergic rhinitis
These conditions can cause swelling, which can prevent the eustachian tubes from opening, leading to pressure difference between the inside and outside of the ear. Fluid can also collect in the middle ear, and between the pressure and fluid buildup, pain can occur.
Symptoms Of Ear Popping
In addition to a popping feeling in the ear, you may also experience:
- crackling in the ear
- a feeling of fullness
- muffled hearing
- ear pain
Why Does My Ear Keep Popping?
Ear popping occurs when the pressure in the ear needs to equalize to keep the eardrum from expanding or contracting more than it usually does. In some cases, this pressure equalization occurs quickly, which causes the popping sensation.
If the ear goes through constant popping, it is because something environmental or physical is preventing the ear from balancing the pressure.
How To Stop Ear Popping?
Various home remedies can help relieve ear popping, as listed below. However, if the popping continues, it is recommended to visit a doctor and determine the cause of the popping, as treating the cause is then the best way to stop ear popping.
Pop Your Ears (Correctly)
For those who are experiencing clogged ears, it is important to gently pop the ears to avoid damaging the eardrum.
When your ears are clogged, try:
Since many cases of ear popping result from the ear canal being clogged by earwax, removing the earwax can help relieve popping. However, it is crucial not to use a cotton swab to remove earwax as this method can instead push earwax further into the ear canal, increasing the probability of the ear canal becoming clogged.
Using hydrogen peroxide, mineral oil, or over-the-counter ear drops can help soften and remove earwax, removing the clog.
The eustachian tubes connect to the back of the throat, and because of this, the mucus from the sinuses can easily spread to the eustachian tubes, resulting in a clog. Using nasal irrigation or a sinus flush can help remove extra mucus from the nose and sinuses and prevent it from clogging the eustachian tube.
For ear popping that is due to inflammation or congestion, certain over-the-counter products can help relieve these symptoms. Decongestants and antihistamines can help reduce congestion, while NSAIDs help reduce inflammation.
In some cases, at-home remedies offer only temporary relief from ear popping, but clinical treatments are needed to provide a long-term solution.
One such treatment is a tympanostomy tube, or ear tube, which can help those suffering from obstructive eustachian tube dysfunction.
Those who have ear congestion due to an infection may benefit from antibiotics to clear the infection and the cause of the pressure buildup.
Should I Be Worried About My Ears Popping?
In most cases, there is no need to worry about popping of the ears, and the ears naturally will pop on their own to relieve any pressure buildup.
If you consistently suffer from ear popping or ear congestion, though, this may be a sign of a problem with the eustachian tube and may require a visit with a doctor.
If you feel the need to pop your ears, it is best to accomplish this by yawning, swallowing, or chewing. Forcibly popping the ears by plugging the nose and blowing out may cause damage to the eardrum, so it is best to pop the ear gently. For those whose ear pops when going throughout their day, it is likely through these gentle actions.
My Ear Keeps Popping and It Hurts
If your ear continues to pop and also hurts, the eustachian tubes are likely clogged.
When fluid or negative pressure gets stuck in the middle ear, the pressure outside the ear becomes too high, a situation which can cause ear pain. If the ear is continuing to pop and is accompanied by pain, you likely have a problem with the eustachian tubes or an illness causing swelling and affecting the eustachian tubes’ ability to open, such as allergies or an ear infection.
When To See a Doctor?
A doctor should check ear popping that is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:
- severe or persistent symptoms
- symptoms that keep coming back
- popping that interferes with your day or makes it hard to hear
- signs of an ear infection lasting longer than a day
- ear discharge with pus or blood
Get Help from An Online Doctor
An online doctor is a convenient resource for those who quickly want to determine what is causing their ear popping. With the DrHouse app, you can meet with a doctor within 15 minutes, allowing you to quickly discuss what might be affecting your ears and begin treatment. All doctors you meet using the DrHouse app can also prescribe medication as needed to treat ears that keep popping.
The eustachian tubes, which connect the middle ear to the back of the throat, play an important role in allowing the ear fluid to drain and maintaining equal pressure inside and outside the ear. When the eustachian tubes cannot open, such as from being clogged or swelling, the pressure outside the ear builds up, and fluid can collect inside the ear. This can then lead to pain and a “clogged” feeling.
Ear popping is a sensation that occurs when the ear quickly equalizes this pressure difference. It is most commonly experienced when on an airplane or going through a tunnel, although it can also affect those who are sick.
There are home remedies to help relieve ear popping, such as over-the-counter products and earwax removal, but some individuals may need to visit a doctor for a more permanent solution. Meeting with an online doctor is a great way to discuss treatments for ear popping.
- Llewellyn, A., Norman, G., Harden, M., Coatesworth, A., Kimberling, D., Schilder, A., & McDaid, C. (2014). Interventions for adult Eustachian tube dysfunction: asystematic review. Health Technology Assessment, 18(46). doi: https://www.doi.org/10.3310/hta18460
- How to Pop Your Ears: 8 Tips. (2022). Retrieved 7 April 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-pop-your-ears
- Ear – Congestion. (2022). Retrieved 7 April 2022, from https://www.seattlechildrens.org/conditions/a-z/ear-congestion/
- Seibert, J., & Danner, C. (2006). Eustachian Tube Function and the Middle Ear. Otolaryngologic Clinics Of North America, 39(6), 1221-1235. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1016/j.otc.2006.08.011