stuffy ear is driving me bananas.
July 21, 2009 10:40 AM   Subscribe

My left ear is stuffy almost every day. Allergies + Qtip use + Earplugs = ?

YANAD, but you might be able to help. for a few years now, my left ear has been stuffy on and off. it is similar to the sensation of having water in your ear (without the actual water sensation, just the stuffiness). i have allergies (cats, dogs, possibly mold, dust) although i have never had allergy testing or allergy shots.

other details: the stuffiness seems more apparent in the summertime. i notice the stuffiness about 30-60 minutes after waking up, and is lasts for a stretch of the day and seems to disappear around the evening-time. i wear an earplug each night (just one, in the ear that doesn’t touch the pillow) and often switch the earplug back and forth when i switch sides while i sleep (i know, i should probably just use two earplugs). also, and this may be pretty important, i use qtips almost every day (once per day), similar to this person. i would characterize it as a qtip addition, (although i don’t hear my pulse like this person did). that said, i don’t think i have any wax build-up. i’ve tried wax-removing techniques (a storebought kit, including some oil and a squirty bulb) as well as warmed olive oil and hydrogen peroxide. i’ve taken a few different kinds of allergy pills, none of which helped. i’ve used a Neti Pot on and off, and have just recently started using it twice a day. i also have a lot of gunk in my throat, and am constantly clearing it and sometimes coughing. this may be related. i also have asthma, which i have under control (i use 100/50 Advair twice per day).

i visited the doctor about two years ago to discuss this problem, assuming it was allergy-related. she checked for wax, didn’t find any, and said that because the stuffiness was only in one ear, it couldn’t be allergies. so she gave me an antibiotic and let me go. i don’t remember this helping at all, and here i am years later with the same problem.

it's really annoying! and i know that i shouldn't be using qtips (maybe my first step will be to cut the qtip use). any suggestions, hive mind?
posted by sucre to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Do you know know to open your eustachian tubes? Yawning or swallowing a lot, with the stuffy ear raised, should do the trick.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:46 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Go back to the doctor. Tell her that you don't remember the antibiotic working at all and apologize for not following up with her years ago when that treatment didn't work. This time, when she gives you a treatment and it doesn't work, follow up with her so that she can continue to do her job and help solve the problem, rather than just assuming that, because you never came back, her very first attempt at treatment worked like a charm.

(I say this as someone who really dislikes going to doctors and would have done exactly the same thing as you. In fact, I have done almost exactly the same thing and should really heed my own advice.)
posted by The World Famous at 10:46 AM on July 21, 2009

Cut down on q-tip usage. Not that it necessarily pushes the wax in, but it may be putting unnecessary pressure in the area.

Try your doctor again. It's persisted long enough to have a second look. A doctor can give you a good ear-cleaning if you ask for one, better than the ones that you self-administer. If you like the feeling of q-tips, you'll probably like the ear-cleaning.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:50 AM on July 21, 2009

I had a similar problem after an ear infection, the stuffiness never totally cleared up. I avoided the doctor for about a year and a half, and when I finally caved my regular physician couldn't figure it out. She referred me to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who prescribed a nasal spray (Nasonex, I think) and after a couple of months the stuffiness went away. So give the doc another try, and go to a specialist if you can.
posted by doift at 11:09 AM on July 21, 2009

After a lifelong battle with ear issues, make sure you visit a Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor, not your general doctor. It can make a world of difference, and has in mine.

said that because the stuffiness was only in one ear, it couldn’t be allergies.

Hm, whenever my allergies act up or I get a head cold, only my left ear gets stuffy, painful, and infected a few days later. My right ear has never had an issue.
posted by jmd82 at 11:12 AM on July 21, 2009

Yeah, seconding jabberjaw's advice to cut down on the q-tip usage. Q-tips sometimes push the wax farther down the ear canal where it can't get out as easily and also sort of massage the glands that produce earwax so you end up producing more. Go see your doc for a second try. She may refer you on to an ear nose and throat doc if things don't get better.
posted by Carhart at 11:32 AM on July 21, 2009

I have the same problem. In fact, I just came off of a month of general left-ear stuffiness and deafness, topped by a killer viral infection in my ear that gave me a killer sore throat for about a week. It was strep, but just a general viral infection.

Q-Tips will not help you, because the stuffiness is caused by swelling from your inner ear. Wax has nothing to do with it. You probably have seasonal allergies (most likely to grass pollen in the summertime), or perhaps your body does not like the lower humidity of summer - when your throat gets dry it gets damaged more easily and you get more prone to viral infections.

As well, when your Eustachian Tubes become inflamed, it actually creates a vacuum in the sealed-off portion of your ear. The vacuum can suck or draw fluid into that portion of the tube, making it easier to develop viral or even bacterial infections. The only thing you can really do is try to prevent this swelling from happening.

You can experiment with different anti-histamines, and you can take mild over the counter medicine such as Ibuprofen, which will reduce the swelling in your ear. It's also a good idea to keep hydrated and drink plenty of water and avoid salt if you can.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:38 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem with my right ear that generally only crops up when I eat commercial ice cream. It is dumb and annoying, and I pretty much can only eat ice cream I make myself now (my guess is that I'm sensitive -not allergic- to large amounts of casein that is added to cheapish ice cream). It took me years to notice the pattern in which a couple days after eating ice cream I would have a miserable stuffed up ear for a week. So you might want to try avoiding dairy for a few weeks, and see if that helps.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:38 PM on July 21, 2009

"Do you know know to open your eustachian tubes? Yawning or swallowing a lot, with the stuffy ear raised, should do the trick." oinopaponton, Thank You! I have been plagued with noisy water-in the-ear sounds for years. The doctor said 'people get that sometimes'. I tried your suggestion and enjoyed silence immediately. This is no small deal to me, thanks so much.
posted by InkaLomax at 12:50 PM on July 21, 2009

Go see an ENT. It's 99% likely that it is just seasonal allergies acting weird. However, when I went in due to similar issues with both ears, they ran a hearing test and also an MRI to rule out a tumor. A Family Practitioner or Internist isn't going to do all that. They'll either not worry about it or refer you on to the ENT.

You could also try an allergist if it is determined to be allergies, but I think you need to see the ENT first.
posted by COD at 12:52 PM on July 21, 2009

Allergies can definitely make the stuffiness worse. Q-tips are especially tempting if cleaning out your ears has rubbed away the wax layer (and irritated the skin underneath). Learn the Valsalva maneuver even if the amount of pressure needed to hear that 'pop' seems like a lot. Seriously though- I've had stuffed ears that were driving me crazy enough that shoving a sharpened stick in my ear was tempting, so kudos for sticking with Q-tips.
posted by variella at 1:13 PM on July 21, 2009

Before pushing out more elaborate boats, may I introduce you to my good friend Sudafed? I live on the stuff, particularly in the summer. Without it, my sinuses become so blocked that I go deaf in my left ear without it.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:41 PM on July 21, 2009

thanks, all! i've made appointments with an ENT and an allergy clinic for the upcoming weeks. all the responses were really helpful. thanks again!
posted by sucre at 6:06 PM on July 21, 2009

Just to be clear (because I wrote my previous answer at 2 am) I take Sudafed for chronic sinusitis. My ears become blocked, my left one radically more so than my right due to a congenital birth defect/anomaly.

The fact that your ear issue is seasonal, comes on primarily during sleep and seems to ease after being vertical for a few hours with gunk in your throat sounds to me like sinusitis. Gravity helps your sinuses to drain - down your throat.

While yes it could be any number of things including a tumour, I just thought you'd want to know it may well be something completely non-scary.

You should be careful with the Valsalva maneuver. I can only do it after taking Sudafed - otherwise the ear will not clear, and you can do damage to your tubes with an aggressive Valsava.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, I do not have any connection to Sudafed other than as a consumer, and I am not cooking meth in my kitchen.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:44 AM on July 22, 2009

I was diagnosed with an allergy that crops up mainly in my right ear years ago. At the time, the doc prescribed guafenisin, which was one big horse pill to swallow (and of which I am not a fan). Then Mucinex went OTC, and I also discovered that plain tussin cough syrup is the same thing. While waiting for the doc appointment, try some Mucinex/guafenisin. It may help drain whatever is in your ear. Sudafed helps me too but I usually have to take it with the guafenisin.

If you go the cough syrup route, READ THE LABEL! You want plain TUSSIN DM or anything like that (so you don't accidentally get too much of a drug you don't want). Good luck...I know how frustrating this can be!
posted by MultiFaceted at 6:40 PM on July 22, 2009

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