How to Pop Your Ears Safely

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Young man holding nose with mouth closed

You may be familiar with the feeling of clogged ears, whether it’s from head congestion when you have a cold or when you’re experiencing a change in air pressure, such as while flying on a plane. The feeling might seem like your ears are stuffy, and sounds are often muffled. In some cases, this clogged feeling can even be painful. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to pop your ears safely and relieve ear pressure. It’s important to learn how to pop your ears safely to protect your eardrum from damage.

Causes of Clogged Ears

The Eustachian tube connects your middle ear cavity to the back of your nose and throat. It allows mucus to drain out of your middle ear to prevent infection. Normally, the tube remains closed to protect your eardrum from loud noises. It opens when you yawn or swallow to equalize the pressure in your middle ear with your surroundings—both sides of your eardrum.

When you feel pressure in your ear due to congestion or a change in altitude, you’re experiencing ear barotrauma. It occurs when the Eustachian tube doesn’t open to equalize the pressure in your middle ear. In some cases, barotrauma can damage your ear. When fluid also builds up in the ear, it can cause an ear infection. This frequently happens in very young children because their Eustachian tubes are short and get clogged easily.

Causes of blocked Eustachian tubes include:

  • Congestion and swelling due to cold, allergies or a sinus infection
  • Negative pressure inside the ear, which occurs when the air pressure outside the ear is higher than inside the ear. This can happen when landing during an airplane flight, descending while scuba diving, skydiving, or driving down a mountain.
  • Positive pressure inside the ear, which occurs when the pressure outside the ear is lower than inside the ear. It may happen while taking off in an airplane, ascending to the surface while scuba diving, or driving up a mountain.

How to Pop Your Ears Safely

Popping—or clearing—your ears can be done safely. If you have sinus congestion due to a cold, a nasal decongestant can help relieve the pressure in your sinuses and ears. If a change in altitude is the problem, safe ways to pop your ears include:

  • Yawning
  • Chewing gum
  • Swallowing
  • Sucking on candy
  • Moving the jaw side to side
  • Using the Valsalva maneuver: Pinch your nose shut, close your mouth and gently attempt to breathe out through your nose, as if you were blowing your nose. Be sure to do this gently, or you can cause an ear infection or perforate your eardrum.
  • For babies, feeding a bottle, nursing or using a pacifier will encourage swallowing, which can help pop their ears.

You can tell when you’ve popped your ears because you’ll hear a pop sound and feel less pressure in your ears. It is particularly important for scuba divers to be able to pop their ears safely. Descending quickly into deep water without popping the ears can cause severe barotrauma.

When to See a Doctor

Most of the time, self-care treatments to safely pop your ears will relieve ear pressure and protect your eardrum. If you’re unable to pop your ears and pain persists, you can suffer serious ear damage, such as hearing loss, a ruptured eardrum, or chronic tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Most of the time hearing loss due to barotrauma is temporary, but it can be permanent in some cases. Call your doctor if you experience other symptoms, such as:

  • Ear drainage
  • Severe ear pain
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jul 1
  1. Ear barotrauma. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001064.htm
  2. Flying and Your Child's Ears. Kids Health. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/flying-ears.html
  3. Eustachian Tube Function. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/874348-overview
  4. Blocked Eustachian Tubes. Michigan Medicine. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uf9680
  5. Ears and Altitude (Barotrauma). ENT Health. https://www.enthealth.org/conditions/ears-and-altitude-barotrauma/
  6. Airplane ear. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/airplane-ear/symptoms-causes/syc-20351701
  7. Ear - blocked at high altitudes. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002077.htm

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