What, do you have shit in your ears?
May 1, 2011 2:40 PM   Subscribe

How do I clear my Eustachian tube after a middle ear infection. I'm seriously at my wit's end.

I just finished my regimen of antibiotics for a middle ear infection, but my right ear is still unbearably clogged. There's no pain, but my hearing is impaired. I saw the doctor for a follow-up on Friday, and he said it could be as long as 2 and a half weeks before it is cleared. The possibility of being like this for another half a month is extremely depressing for me (or even longer, because if it isn't clear by then, I'd have to go on nasal steroids), so I've been trying everything I can to remedy the situation, such as:

- Saline nasal sprays
- Gargling with warm salt water
- Various decongestants including Coricidin HBP (recommended by my doctor), Advil Cold and Sinus and Mucinex D
- Neti Pot
- Homeopathic nasal sprays
- Working out
- Chewing gum
- The technique described here, though I couldn't get my throat to close off, so I didn't really get much water in my sinuses
- Rubbing alcohol in the ear canal

After trying all of these for the better part of a week, not only have they not worked, but they haven't even made a dent in the clog. I can't get it to even crack the tiniest bit of I blow my nose or use the valsalva maneuver. My wife is getting tired of me moping around the house because I can't do any of the things I love (watch tv/movies, read, listen to music, or even work effectively), since I find it hard to concentrate or hear well. Can anyone suggest anything I haven't already tried?
posted by emptybowl to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It's not blocked with water, or mucus, or detritus; it's blocked because the tissue itself is inflamed.

Trying to push air (valsalva) or water (gargling) through the tube is only going to increase the inflammatory response.

Put a hot compress on your ear -- this both imparts a little heat and gives you an external "reason" your hearing should be impaired -- and then immerse yourself in something distracting. And wait.
posted by orthogonality at 2:54 PM on May 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

The more stuff you try to do, the longer it takes to get better. I usually just load up on ibuprofen and try to wait it out.
posted by gracedissolved at 3:00 PM on May 1, 2011

I have used nasal steroids (Flonase) for this and it works wonderfully. I'm surprised your doctor didn't go ahead and give you a prescription.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:00 PM on May 1, 2011

When I was a kid, lying down with the ear on a warm wet washcloth (make sure to wrap it in something else to avoid burning yourself) and just waiting seemed to help. Watch a movie and reheat the washcloth periodically.
posted by MadamM at 3:03 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Me too. I'm sorry, I empathize. Filling a clean sock with rice, microwaving it for thirty seconds and using it as a compress feels nice.
posted by slateyness at 3:10 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also seconding flonase.
posted by slateyness at 3:11 PM on May 1, 2011

Go for a run.
Take an advil.
Leave it alone.
posted by rr at 3:23 PM on May 1, 2011

You might ask your MD about getting an "ear bath." It's essentially a warm saline enema for your ear. I had one done when I had a lot of junk in my ear, but not after an infection, so it may not be right for you.

Also: Flonase is awesome, yes.
posted by wowbobwow at 3:24 PM on May 1, 2011

Warm compresses and time are the only things that have ever worked for me. I too use the warm washcloth/lying down in front of the TV method.
posted by SMPA at 3:27 PM on May 1, 2011

Breathe hot steamy air through your nose, in the shower or a steam bath, while your head is tilted way back.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:34 PM on May 1, 2011

Don't let it bother you so much, because it can last longer than one month. When it happened to me, I saw it as an opportunity to pamper myself, starting by ignoring the people speaking to me since I could not hear them anyway.

Think of it as a time to savor: no telephone, no noise, no people, no commercials. If you want to watch TV, closed caption is your friend and the rest can be ignored. I used my deafness as an excuse to buy all the books I wanted and to hop in bed early with the microwaved sock of rice mentioned above.
One ear cleared in three weeks, but the other stayed clogged for at least another three.
posted by francesca too at 3:42 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Neilmed works a little differently then a neti pot, it's gentle and will keep your sinuses clear and clean, which is a good jumping off point for healing. BTW, steroid nasal sprays are really good in keeping inflammation down and will allow you to keep all your sinus passages clean so it doesn't happen again. Hope you feel better!
posted by ~Sushma~ at 3:55 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I get similar symptoms from my Meniere's disease, and a week-long course of diuretics helps sometimes. Is it just the clogged sensation, or is it kind of bubbly-gloopy weird-sounding sometimes, like someone is pouring a non-newtonian fluid down a drain inside your head?
posted by elizardbits at 4:07 PM on May 1, 2011

Please be careful. It's easy to irreparably damage your ears by persistently trying to clear them.

Unfortunately this is one of those things that time heals best. I had a bad bout of ear infection about 5 years ago. After antibiotics both ears were blocked for about a week. Then one cleared, and the other was blocked for about 2 more weeks.

I know how maddening it is. But the only thing you can do is palliative care (like applying gentle heat and taking ibuprofen) to help the swelling go down on its own. Try to get enough rest, drink enough fluids, and generally take care of yourself.
posted by ErikaB at 4:24 PM on May 1, 2011

It's not clogged. It's swollen shut. Don't irritate it.
posted by flabdablet at 5:39 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been in this situation and took nasal steroids. Why are you against this? You won't have to be on them for long. Why suffer?
posted by DMelanogaster at 5:45 PM on May 1, 2011

As alternative treatments go, it's pretty far out there, but I like ear candles. (Available for about 2 bucks apiece at some health food/alternative "medicine" stores). Basically, it's a large parafin & mulim candle-shaped tube that you balance in your ear and light on fire. The hollow chimney creates a gentle suction as the tube burns down, which removes all sorts of crud & leaves my ears feeling wonderfully refreshed & empty.

Couple caveats: do NOT do this by yourself. Someone needs to observe the smoke as it exits the candle & make sure it's coming from the top, not your ear. If it draws wrong, you can burn your eardrum. (Done it! Yeah, I thought I was tricksy enough to get away with it. WRONG.) Also, something fireproof between candle & hair is highly recommended. My go-to is a pie plate with a hole cut out for the candle. And I do recommend getting 4 or 6 candles: One per ear is just isn't enough.
posted by Ys at 6:02 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

This happened to me, and it was a good 6 weeks before it was totally better. I'm a speech therapist, and I couldn't hear my student's artic errors, especially their s lisps. I felt embarrassed over how depressing and how frustrating it was. I was nearly in tears a couple times from being frustrated, even though I felt ridiculous for it.

I went to an ENT eventually, and he looked at my ear and assured me that it would just take time. BUT I did use Affrin spray (which is an over-the-counter steroid--don't use it more than 2 days). I think drinking lots of water helps, and if you have allergies, using Clariton D (decongestant) helps. Ibuprofen might help, too, since it calms inflammation. But, yeah, when mine happened, it definitely felt like fluid more than inflammation.

I guess I'm here for sympathy more than advice, and to let you know you aren't the only one who feels so frustrated by the stupid fluid in your ear. BUT, if it's really bugging you, talk to your doctor or ENT again and let them know how much it's bugging you. Maybe something can be done.
posted by shortyJBot at 6:29 PM on May 1, 2011

My ears have done this several times--assuming you're talking about plugged ears and not swollen ears. I went to the doctor and got warm water squirted in my ears twice with a turkey-baster-sized syringe. The problem was that he got allll the wax out, leaving none to protect my ears and they became infected a week later (both times). Being able to hear your own hair is fantastic, though.

So I started irrigating my own ears in the shower, a little gentler. Use warm water, nothing hotter than would be comfortable on your face. Angle your ear down if your shower head allows, and don't use too much water pressure (if it hurts, you're doing it wrong). Start with <2>
That ear doctor also recommended using a drop of hydrogen peroxide to denature the proteins in the ear wax so it loosens up a bit. I've never heard anyone else recommend this, but I've done it several times with a q-tip. It burns a little. Maybe lay down for a few minutes on each side. You probably won't notice anything for a couple hours, then sometimes it all comes out at once. Or not. Don't do this before work.

For maximum effect, start with hydrogen peroxide, then take an ibuprofen to reduce swelling so your ear passages are fully open. Then exercise or warm your head up somehow--I often listen to music with over-the-ear headphones and imagine that the vibration helps. Then shower and squirt warm water in your ears.

None of this will help you in the long run if you go around sticking qtips or your fingers in your ears (wash your hands before bed if you do this in your sleep like me). That's the surest way to mess them up again, especially when they're dewaxed.

YMMV, IANAED, etc. Hope this helps!
posted by nemp at 7:11 PM on May 1, 2011

Oops, that should read "Start with less than two minutes until you get an idea of how much is necessary". Although I've been lurking for 8+ years, that was my first post and I didn't anticipate the tag thing.
posted by nemp at 7:14 PM on May 1, 2011

Ear candling is dangerous nonsense.
posted by rr at 8:01 PM on May 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

Concur. Ear candling is quackery and potentially harmful. Don't.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:09 PM on May 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Just one quick question: the doctor you saw.. was s/he an Ear Nose Throat specialist or a General Practitioner? I had what I thought was a wax blockage. I went to my GP, who flushed out my ear despite the fact that she said there really wasn't too much wax in the ear. Then, she told me she thought I actually had an ear infection and prescribed a round of antibiotics. When neither treatments worked, I broke down and made an appointment with an ENT who took one look in my ear and told me that I never excess wax OR an infection. What I actually had was fluid in the middle ear and that all the drops, irrigations, and other attempts to clean out the ears did more harm than good. Definitely I've read that sometimes it can take a few months for your ear to return to normal after a cold or infection, so your experience might be completely normal and you just have to wait it out, but, if you haven't, it may be worth seeing a specialist to make sure that your diagnosis was correct (if you didn't originally go to a specialist, that is). I wish I would have gone to my ENT immediately because the prednisone (+ nasal steroids) might have cleared up my issue without requiring further treatments (ear tubes). I've learned that there are limits to what a GP can see/diagnose.

Basically, if you haven't, spring for an appointment with an ENT. Otherwise, you've pretty much exhausted the OTC/home treatments. I wouldn't put any more in the ear (liquids), personally. If they were really going to clear up your hearing in this instance, they probably would have made at least some dent by now. FWIW, my symptoms were the same as yours.
posted by Mael Oui at 9:49 PM on May 1, 2011

The nasal steroids (I was prescribed Omnaris rather than Flonase) don't have the same side effects that oral steroids (prednisone, for instance), which I was also prescribed. I didn't have luck with either of them in the end, though.

On the off-chance that you're interested, I can link you to the full rundown of everything I tried and/or my similar question on MeFi from last year. Or you can PM me.. Anyway, I know how miserable it is to have that stuffy head feeling and think you're never going to hear again.. It took nine months for mine to finally clear up last year (after I got the ear tubes), and it was the happiest day when I could finally hear again. Good luck! I hope you feel better as soon and as painlessly as possible!
posted by Mael Oui at 10:03 PM on May 1, 2011

Wow, it's amazing to see how many people don't realize they have eardrums. Any advice as far as removing wax, ear candling (what!?) and such are not doing anything for the inner ear and sinuses.

When my eustachian tubes get clogged, my ENT makes a tiny incision in my eardrum and vacuums out the inner ear. I get immediate relief from the clogged / crackly sensation. She administers a few drops of local anesthetic so there is no pain. I walk out five minutes later feeling great. Over the course of about a day, your ear drains, since the suction has been broken. You know how if you dip a straw into a drink with your finger over the straw and the straw stays full? As soon as you release your finger from the end of the straw, the liquid drains. This is how it feels inside your head after you have your eardrum slit.

The relief is immediate and the eardrum heals on its own in about 2 days.
posted by PSB at 5:48 AM on May 2, 2011

Response by poster: Last night I took some ibuprofen, heated up my wife's rice pillow, and laid for about 2 hours. This morning my ear actually pops the tiniest bit when I swallow, so I guess that's progress? I'll have to try heat some more when I'm home at night.

Stories of 6 weeks/nine months of this haven't done much for my mood, unfortunately, but I thank you all for your advice. Hopefully the heat will help.
posted by emptybowl at 6:00 AM on May 2, 2011

The hollow chimney creates a gentle suction as the tube burns down, which removes all sorts of crud & leaves my ears feeling wonderfully refreshed & empty

It may well feel nice, but that's not because it's sucking anything out of your ear canal. The ear candle can't work as a chimney because it's stuck in your ear canal, which is closed off by your eardrum. That means the candle couldn't vacuum clean your ear even if a flame burning essentially in open air did produce significant suction, which it doesn't.

What actually happens is that hot beeswax vapor and smoke from the base of the flame goes swirling around inside the hollow candle, and as the candle gets shorter, some of this will happen close enough to your ear that it swirls around in there as well. None of the gas velocities involved are very high; certainly not high enough to dislodge stuck crud from inside your ear canal. It will warm you (or maybe even burn you, or even drop bits of hot ash and/or molten wax right onto your ear drum) but it won't remove crud; it may well deposit some.

If you don't believe me, try burning down an ear candle with its bum end stuck in some kind of clean, transparent container of the approximate dimensions of an ear canal (a crack pipe works well if you happen to have one lying around). You will see the container fill with white vapor, and when the ear candle has burned down there will be crud deposited inside it.

Don't stick things in your ears and light them on fire. It's every bit as stupid an idea as it first sounds.

And even if you could suck crud out of your ear canals without rupturing your eardrum, this would do diddly squat for a Eustachian tube swollen shut by inflammation on the other side of it.
posted by flabdablet at 8:47 AM on May 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Okay, this is on the woo spectrum: I have ears that get stuffed up regularly, most often due to food sensitivities. I try to avoid the foods, but every once in a while I get a stuffed ear anyway, and it makes me insane. One desperate night after a week of crappiness I tried the pressure point exercises on this page, ate dinner and forgot about it, and then realized my ear was no longer blocked. It was only once that I've tried it, and it's possible that the exercises had nothing to do with anything. It costs nothing but time, though.

Regular ibuprofen doses act as an anti-inflammatory, so you might want to take it more consistently.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:55 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a plugged up ear for some weeks several years ago, it was a nuisance but perhaps not as bad as you described, hard to say. But it didn't get better, didn't get better, didn't get better, and then I went from sea level to around 4,000 feet and POOF~it all went away. Just opened right up and never came back.

Good luck!

posted by davoid at 5:58 PM on May 2, 2011

Agreed that your middle ear (NOT your inner ear, which is encased slightly deeper in the part of your skull/temporal bone containing the actual organs of hearing and balance) is inflamed, effectively shutting off your eustachian tube, and probably messing with the way your incus, stapes and malleus conducts sound to your cochlea. I would take ibuprofen and, on a short-term basis, pseudoephedrine (the kind you have to ask the pharmacist for)...or maybe even just an antihistamine like Benadryl. Nasal steroids work fantastic for allergies, but can take several days to start working. And finally, it's true that a myringotomy (tiny hole sliced through the eardrum) may help a lot if an ENT thinks it's necessary. It will heal up over a short period of time, but should somewhat equalize the pressure between your outer ear/ear canal and middle ear. IANAD. Just a long time Meniere's patient who knows too much about the ear.
posted by bennett being thrown at 9:24 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

After my last cold, it took several months for the clogged ears to abate, and I still get it occasionally for about an hour.

It drives me crazy, but it does eventually go away. I feel your pain.
posted by desuetude at 9:27 PM on May 2, 2011

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