Say what? 4 possible causes of blocked ears

Say what? If that's become your catchphrase - and not because you weren't listening - it's time for a trip to the doctor's.

Occasionally feeling like your ears are blocked is normal, but not if the discomfort lingers.

In general, you should get your ear checked if the blockage doesn't clear in a day or two, says Dr Yuen Heng Wai, senior consultant with the Department of Otolaryngology in Changi General Hospital.

He shares four possible causes and what to expect.

1. Your blocked ears could be due to… Ear infection

Symptoms include: Pain, ringing in the ear, fluid discharge and, in rare cases, dizziness.

Why does an ear infection happen: Excess dirt and wax or water in the ear canal might create the ideal environment for bacteria to thrive and cause an infection.

How to treat an ear infection: The doctor will clean your ear and prescribe antibiotic eardrops. Skip all water activities until the infection clears up. If medication doesn't work, surgery may be needed.

2. Your blocked ears could be due to… Ear wax impaction

Symptoms include: Pain and a sensation of fullness in the ear.

Why does ear wax impaction happen: As its name suggests, it is caused by an excessive build-up of ear wax. In some cases, it happens when the ear is unable to clear wax quickly enough.

It could also result from a skin condition like eczema, where flakes of skin accumulate in the ear canal and thicken the build-up.

A prevention tip: Stop digging as cotton buds push dirt and wax further into the ear canal where they might get lodged.

How to treat ear wax impaction: Drops can help soften and loosen the wax.

If this doesn't work, it will need to be removed by an ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon.

3. Your blocked ears could be due to… Eustachian tube disorder (ETD)

Symptoms include: Ringing in the ear, hearing echoes when talking and feeling fullness, pressure or pain.

Why does Eustachian tube disorder happen: The Eustachian tube (ET) connects the middle ear to the uppermost part of the throat.

The exact causes of ETD are unclear, but it can occur when the ET develops problems in secretory function, such as during an upper respiratory tract infection.

It could also result when the opening of the ET is blocked by something, like a tumour.

People who are frequently exposed to changes in their surrounding pressure - such as divers or flight attendants - are at a higher risk of developing ETD.

How to treat Eustachian tube disorder: Decongestant nasal sprays may be prescribed to alleviate the blockage of the ET opening at the back of the nose.

The doctor might also use a method known as venting, which involves forcing air into one nostril as you hold your breath with the mouth closed.

If these measures fail, surgery may be needed.

4. Your blocked ears could be due to… Hearing loss

Symptoms include: The lack of sound might be perceived as a blockage, although hearing loss does not lead to blockage.

Some also experience ringing in the ear.

Why does hearing loss happen: Common causes of hearing loss include ear infections, exposure to loud sounds or excessive noise, as well as the growth of a tumour on the hearing nerve.

How to treat hearing loss: Hearing aids or implants may be prescribed, but the specific treatment will depend on the underlying cause.

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