Ear Fullness

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What is ear fullness?

Ear fullness is the feeling that your ears are clogged, stuffed or congested when yawning, swallowing, or other usual methods for eliminating this sensation have failed to work. You may experience muffled or slightly impaired hearing as a result.

Ear fullness accompanied by cold and flu-like symptoms is typically caused by a blocked Eustachian tube, which connects your ear to your throat and permits the drainage of fluid from your middle ear. If fluid builds up, it can cause the middle ear to become infected with bacteria or viruses, causing pain and swelling.

Sudden, dramatic shifts in air pressure, such as those experienced when flying in an airplane or scuba diving, may cause fullness in the ear or even rupture of the eardrum. This is known as barotrauma and occurs from extreme pressure differences between the inside of your ear and the outside.

Although ear fullness often results from congestion due to the common cold and will resolve with self-treatment, certain symptoms may indicate a more serious condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if your symptoms persist after three to four days or are accompanied by a very high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), severe pain, swelling and redness of the skin surrounding the ear, or drainage of pus from the ear.

What other symptoms might occur with ear fullness?

You may experience other symptoms surrounding the ear in addition to the feeling of fullness, clogging and congestion.

Ear symptoms that may occur along with fullness

Ear fullness may accompany other symptoms affecting the ears including:

  • Pain or tenderness around the ear or in the bone behind the ear
  • Pruritus (itching)
  • Pus or other secretions draining from the ear
  • Redness, warmth or swelling

Other symptoms that may occur along with ear fullness

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Although most ear infections and other causes of ear fullness either resolve on their own or with antibiotics, some symptoms warrant immediate medical attention, as they may indicate an infection of the bones behind the ear. Seek immediate medical care if you, someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms including:

  • High fever (higher than101 degrees Fahrenheit) for 48 hours or more
  • Severe headache
  • Severe pain
  • Throbbing or tenderness behind the ear, especially over the bone

What causes ear fullness?

Ear fullness can be caused by infection, especially when accompanied by cold and flu-like symptoms. The feeling of fullness is the result a blocked Eustachian tube, which connects your ear to your throat and permits the drainage of fluid from your middle ear. If fluid builds up, the middle ear may become infected with bacteria or viruses, leading to pain and swelling. Hay fever and other allergies are also common causes of ear fullness.

Sudden, dramatic shifts in air pressure, such as those experienced when flying in an airplane or scuba diving, may cause fullness in the ear and even lead to rupture of your eardrum. This is known as barotrauma and occurs from extreme pressure differences between the inside of your ear and the outside.

Infectious causes of ear fullness

Ear fullness may be caused by infections including:

Incidental causes of ear fullness

Ear fullness can have other causes including:

  • Acoustic neuroma (benign tumor of the nerve connecting the inner ear to the brain)
  • Barotrauma (effects caused by sudden or extreme changes in air pressure)
  • Ear wax buildup
  • Eustachian tube dysfunction
  • Exposure to loud noises, such as drilling, hammering, fireworks or music
  • Foreign body in the outer ear canal
  • Hay fever or allergic reaction from animal dander, dust, cosmetics or pollen

Serious or life-threatening causes of ear fullness

Ear fullness is usually the result of a cold or flu that blocks the Eustachian tube and may lead to ear infection. In some cases, ear fullness may be a symptom of severe infection of the bone behind the ear, which is a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of ear fullness

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your ear fullness including:

  • How long have you had a feeling of ear fullness?
  • Are you taking any medications?
  • Are you experiencing oozing, pus, or any other discharge from the ear?
  • Do you feel otherwise healthy?
  • Have you spent a lot of time outdoors lately?
  • Have you been swimming or scuba diving?
  • Have you recently been in an airplane or done anything else that would have exposed you to sudden changes in altitude or air pressure?
  • Have you been in an environment where you were exposed to extremely loud noise, such as at a construction site or rock concert?

What are the potential complications of ear fullness?

Ear fullness usually resolves after a few days, but it is important to determine its underlying cause and rule out a serious infection. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications.

  • Cholesteatoma (tumor or cyst most commonly found in the middle ear)
  • Facial paralysis
  • Mastoiditis (inflammation of the bone behind the ear)
  • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)
  • Permanent hearing loss
  • Recurring ear infections
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Spread of infection

References:

  1. Ear problems. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/ear-problems.html.
  2. Ear infections. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/ear-infections.html.
  3. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 10
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