How to Open Plugged Ears

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When flying on a plane or entering a situation with a raid change in air pressure, your ears can become plugged. Open your ears back up with help from a practicing doctor in this free video.

Part of the Video Series: Ears 101
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Video Transcript

Hi. I'm Dr. David Hill, and today we're going to talk about how to open plugged ears. The first question is, what are we talking about when we say a plugged ear? Well, usually that's a sensation of pressure in the middle ear. Where is this middle ear? Well, it's everything from behind the eardrum--so you start walking this way, you get to the eardrum. The eardrum is the outer wall of the middle ear. That is the beginning of a chamber that encloses the little bones--the ossicles--that carry sound waves from the eardrums down to the nerves--the cochlea. That chamber is usually filled with air, and the air in the middle ear is usually the same pressure as the rest of the outside world. Now you're probably familiar with going up or down in a tall building in a rapid elevator, or ascending or descending in an airplane, or even just going up a mountain, and finding that suddenly the pressure around your head is not the same as the pressure in the middle ear. When that happens, the eardrum gets pushed out or pulled in, doesn't move very well, and you get a sense of pressure. Fluid can also collect in the middle ear as a result of cold, and sometimes that fluid can become infected with bacteria and become pus. That's when you have an acute otitis media. So, how to relieve the pressure depends on what the cause of the pressure is. If it's a simple matter of air pressure, you can start by trying to yawn or chew, or trying to swallow hard. You can hold your nose and swallow, or try to move air up and down a little bit, and try and equalize the pressure using the Eustachian tube, which is a tiny little canal that goes from the inside of the middle ear down to the inside of the nose. Now, if you have fluid in your ear from a cold, you may need to help it drain it a little bit using a nasal decongestant, like pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine. Over the counter may be helpful; you might want to use one of the nasal sprays, like Afrin, but not for more than two or three days or you're going to have a heck of a time stopping using it. You might use normal saline in the nose introduced with a neti pot. You can make your own normal saline by using one teaspoon of salt and two cups of water. Any of these maneuvers may help. If you think you have an ear infection, if you have a lot of pain, you may want to see a doctor about it, but be aware more and more often we're not using antibiotics because we find they don't make that big a difference in who gets better. We usually reserve antibiotics for cases of middle ear infections that are particularly severe or complicated, or occur in very young children. Talking about how to relieve middle ear pressure, I'm Dr. David Hill.

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