It’s exasperating that being sick with something like a cold, the flu, or a sinus infection can make your ears feel like crap. The unpleasant ear pressure that often comes along with these kinds of illnesses is the last thing you need when you’re dealing with other symptoms like a stuffy nose, constant coughing, or the general malaise that comes with being sick. Why exactly does your body drag your ears into the situation when you’re not feeling well? And is there anything you can do about it?
Why ear pressure happens when you’re sick
It’s common for your ears to feel stuffy when you have an illness or infection that impacts the general vicinity of your head, Bradford A. Woodworth, M.D., a professor in the department of otolaryngology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, tells SELF. “Because our ears, nose, and throat are all closely connected, a problem in one area often leads to another,” Dr. Woodworth says.
Much of the function of this ear-nose-throat network hinges on tiny canals called the Eustachian tubes. Each ear has one of these narrow passageways to connect the middle ear (the part containing the eardrum along with tiny bones that help transport sound) to the back of the nasal passages and upper throat, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. These tubes open and close regularly to adjust the air pressure in your middle ear, remove natural fluids from your middle ear, and circulate new air inside your ear, according to the Mayo Clinic.
When you’re battling something like an upper respiratory infection or allergy, your Eustachian tube openings can become partially blocked due to tissue inflammation and mucus secretions, Dr. Woodworth says. This inflammation can potentially interfere with the normal functioning of these tubes, possibly leading to a pressure imbalance, Dr. Woodworth explains. This may cause a sensation of stuffiness. (It’s similar to the plugged-up feeling you might get from the sudden change in air pressure that happens when you’re in an airplane, Dr. Woodworth explains.)
This inflammation can also cause fluid buildup that leads to ear pressure, Anthony Del Signore, M.D., director of rhinology and endoscopic skull base surgery at Mount Sinai Union Square, tells SELF. When the Eustachian tubes are partially blocked, it’s harder for those middle ear secretions to flow down the back of your throat (yum), which can lead to an uncomfortably full sensation.
If you feel like you always wind up with ear pressure when you’re sick, know that some people’s Eustachian tubes are naturally shaped in a way that makes them more prone to ear discomfort while ill, Dr. Del Signore says. Eustachian tubes that are narrower or more horizontal than average make it easier for fluid to collect. (Children’s Eustachian tubes are shaped this way, which is part of the reason why ear issues are more common in kids, according to the Mayo Clinic.) Other people might have more abundant mucous linings at the opening of their Eustachian tubes, which can make swelling more likely when they’re sick, Dr. Del Signore adds.
How to relieve ear pressure when you’re sick
Fortunately, ear pressure usually goes away when the underlying infection or illness clears up, Dr. Del Signore says. This can either happen naturally (in the case of something like a cold) or through prescribed medication (in the case of something like a bacterial sinus infection).
In the meantime, reducing ear pressure comes down to relieving congestion and swelling in areas like the nose and throat to open up those Eustachian tubes. This basically means treating your condition with whichever at-home remedies you normally rely on to tame symptoms, like antihistamines for allergies and nasal decongestants. (If you’re using nasal decongestant spray that works by constricting your nose’s blood vessels, be extra-diligent about following the instructions to only use them for a few days. Otherwise you may wind up with rebound congestion that prolongs your symptoms, including ear pressure.)
You can also try the same tricks you might use when you’re dealing with ear pressure on an airplane, as outlined by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. These tactics are all designed to open up the Eustachian tubes, allowing airflow to equalize the pressure on either side of your eardrums:
- Chew gum
- Take a breath, then try to breathe out gently with your mouth shut and holding your nostrils closed
- Suck on something like a cough drop
How to tell if it’s something more
If your ear pressure sticks around after you otherwise feel better (or for longer than about a week) and you start to experience issues like ear pain, fluid drainage, and hearing loss, you may be dealing with an ear infection, Dr. Del Signore says. This can happen if the fluid that’s built up in your inner ear becomes infected by a virus or bacteria, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Although ear infections often clear up on their own in a week or two without any treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic, severe cases can cause complications and may require antibiotics. If you suspect that you might have an ear infection, definitely see a doctor. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, they can take a detailed look inside your ears and figure out what’s behind your symptoms.