You sneezed. You blew your nose. You endured a very scratchy throat. And… eventually… you were able to recover from the worst cold you’ve had all year. Now you’re back to work and having dinner with friends.
But your ears are still blocked. Which is odd, because no other symptoms remain. It’s a disconcerting feeling, and it’s impacting your ability to hear (to say nothing of hindering your social life). What would cause your ears to remain blocked after a cold, you wonder.
A cold virus–in scientific jargon referred to as a “rhinovirus”–can often incite congestion and blockages throughout your nasal passages, sinuses, and ears. The virus, in the process, can sometimes cause, reveal, or exacerbate other conditions that leave your ears full of fluid. And that can leave you feeling like your ears are clogged, stuffy and uncomfortable. But there are some possible solutions.
Managing Fluid Overflow
When you have a cold, your ears aren’t usually the primary source of your symptoms. That’s left to your throat, your nose, your sinuses–all that. But your ears do have to deal with the overflow. The mucus and fluid that builds up during your illness will usually outstrip your body’s ability to manage it; symptom-wise, that translates into sniffles or congestion (or some devious combination of both).
Excess fluid and mucus are often diverted to your ears–specifically to your middle ear and eustachian tubes (the eustachian tubes are the canals that connect your ears to your throat).
When you’re congested, that fluid and mucus can get stuck (rather than properly draining) and start filling up your ear canal. (Other cold symptoms, such as inflammation, can exacerbate the situation.) Clogged ears can create intense discomfort and impair your ability to hear properly.
Why Are My Ears Still Blocked?
So if a cold is the source of all this havoc, you would expect your ears to return to normal once your immune system finishes its good work. And that is indeed what usually happens. But not always. In some cases, you might find your ears remain frustratingly clogged. Here’s what might be happening:
- It could just need a little more time to drain. Sometimes your head needs another day to drain the fluid.
- It could be inflammation: If your recently conquered cold is still causing residual inflammation, your ear might have a difficult time draining. Inflammation can narrow the eustachian tubes, causing fluid to drain more slowly (and limiting your ability to hear in the process).
- You might have an ear infection: It’s possible that prolonged exposure to the excess fluid backed up in your ears has caused an infection. Most ear infections will cause further fluid buildup and inflammation. Unfortunately, that inflammation may make it difficult for your body to drain any of that fluid. (One symptom exacerbates the next.) Residual fluid from your cold will only add to your discomfort. Thankfully, many ear infections can be treated with medication.
- You might have a sinus infection: Sinus infections and ear infections can both be caused by common colds, especially if your body isn’t able to drain fluid as efficiently as it normally does. A sinus infection can cause your ears to feel blocked and full even if your cold symptoms are a distant memory.
There May Be an Underlying Issue
If the blockage in your ears can’t be explained by any of the above possibilities, you may have an underlying condition causing the blockage. For example, you could have a buildup of earwax creating problems. Or there could be an unexpected growth in your ear canal making trouble. It’s possible for these issues to develop at the same time as your cold (it’s also possible that you don’t notice them until your cold incited some symptoms in the first place).
In these cases, it’s certainly a good idea to seek out some professional help, often from a hearing specialist.
Don’t Ignore a Blockage
If a blockage doesn’t go away on its own–or if it’s accompanied by discomfort and pain–you should avoid ignoring it. If a blockage is the sign of an ear infection, for example, treatment will be able to alleviate symptoms and possibly serious damage to your ears.
Blockages that are ignored can, in many cases, result in significant or permanent hearing loss. So it’s a good idea to get things checked out while it’s still in the “inconvenient” category.
If you’ve just recovered from your cold, it’s likely that your blocked ears will be just fine in a day or so. But the longer the blockage persists, the more urgent proper care may become.