Children's Hospital Colorado

Ear - Congestion

Urgent or Emergency Care?

If you believe your child needs immediate attention and you have concerns for a life-threatening emergency, call 911. Not sure what counts as urgent and what's an emergency when your child is sick or injured? When it can't wait, know where to take your kids.

Help Me Decide

  • Sudden onset of a stuffy or plugged up feeling in the ear
  • Crackling or popping noise in the ear
  • Hearing is often muffled
  • No ear pain, except with air-travel type
  • Rare complaint before age 4 or 5 years

Causes of Ear Congestion

  • Common Cold. A viral infection of the nose is the most common cause. The nasal congestion also blocks the ear tube (eustachian tube). The ear tube normally keeps air in the middle ear.
  • Ear Infection. Middle ear pus can also cause muffled hearing on that side. This commonly happens with an ear infection.
  • Middle Ear Fluid. Fluid may remain in the middle ear after the infection is cleared up. It can last for months. The main symptoms are popping and crackling noises in the ear.
  • Blowing the Nose. Blowing too hard can force secretions into the ear tube.
  • Allergic Rhinitis. Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollens. It causes nasal congestion, clear drainage and sneezing. It also can block the ear tube and back up secretions in the ear.
  • Airplane Ear. If the ear tube is blocked, sudden increases in air pressure can cause the eardrum to stretch. The main symptom is ear pain. Sometimes, it just causes congestion. It usually starts when coming down for a landing. It can also occur during mountain driving.

Call Doctor Within 24 Hours

  • You think your child needs to be seen
  • Earache
  • Could be a foreign body in the ear canal
  • Ear congestion lasts more than 48 hours

Call Doctor During Office Hours

  • Could be blocked with ear wax
  • You have other questions or concerns

Self Care at Home

  • Ear congestion most likely from blocked ear tube

Care Advice for Ear Congestion

  1. What You Should Know About Ear Congestion:
    • Most often, this is from a blocked ear tube (eustachian tube). This tube normally drains the space behind the eardrum.
    • It is usually not caused by an ear infection.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. Swallow and Chew More:
    • Swallow water or other fluid while the nose is pinched closed. Reason: Makes a vacuum in the nose that helps the ear tube open up.
    • After age 6, can also use chewing gum.
  3. Decongestant Nose Spray (Age 12 years or Older):
    • If chewing doesn't help after 1 or 2 hours, use a long-acting decongestant nose spray. An example is Afrin.
    • Dose: 1 spay per side, 2 times per day as needed.
    • Don't use for more than 3 days. Reason: Can cause rebound swelling in the nose.
    • Decongestants given by mouth (such as Sudafed) are another choice. They can also open a stuffy nose and ears. Side effects: They may make a person feel nervous or dizzy. Follow the package directions.
  4. Allergy Medicines:
    • Nose allergies can cause ear stuffiness.
    • If your child has hay fever or other allergies, give an allergy medicine. An example is Benadryl.
    • See the Nose Allergy care guide for other advice.
  5. What to Expect:
    • The symptoms most often clear within 2 days (48 hours) with treatment.
    • It's safe for your child to swim or fly.
  6. Prevention During Air or Mountain Travel:
    • It's safe to fly when your child has a cold.
    • Most symptoms happen when the airplane is coming down in altitude. This is the descent of the plane during the 15 minutes before landing.
    • Keep your child awake during takeoff and descent.
    • Swallow during descent using fluids or a pacifier.
    • Age over 6: Can chew gum during descent.
    • Yawning during descent also can open the middle ear.
    • Drink lots of fluids throughout the flight. This will prevent the nasal secretions from drying out.
  7. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Ear pain occurs
    • Ear congestion lasts more than 48 hours
    • You think your child needs to be seen
    • Your child becomes worse

Disclaimer

The information contained in these topics is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, it is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider before starting any new treatment or discontinuing an existing treatment. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Nothing contained in these topics is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment.

  • Not a Substitute - The information and materials in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker should not be used as a substitute for the care and knowledge that your physician can provide to you.
  • Supplement - The information and materials presented here in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker are meant to supplement the information that you obtain from your physician. If there is a disagreement between the information presented herein and what your physician has told you -- it is more likely that your physician is correct. He or she has the benefit of knowing your child's medical problems.
  • Limitations - You should recognize that the information and materials presented here in Pediatric HouseCalls Symptom Checker have the following limitations, in comparison to being examined by your own physician:
    • You can have a conversation with your child's doctor.
    • Your child's doctor can perform a physical examination and any necessary tests.
    • Your child could have an underlying medical problem that requires a physician to detect.
    • If your child is taking medications, they could influence how he experiences various symptoms.

If you think that your child is having a medical emergency, call 911 or the number for the local emergency ambulance service NOW!

And when in doubt, call your child's doctor NOW or go to the closest emergency department.

The search for nearby emergency and urgent care facilities is based upon Google search parameters. You will get results based on how facilities manage their website information.

By using this website, you accept the information provided herein "AS IS." Neither publishers nor the providers of the information contained herein will have any liability to you arising out of your use of the information contained herein or make any expressed or implied warranty regarding the accuracy, content, completeness, reliability, or efficacy of the information contained within this website.

Copyright 1994-2017 Schmitt Pediatric Guidelines LLC. All rights reserved.

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