Whether it was driving up a winding mountain road, riding in a skyscraper’s high-speed elevator, or a traveling on a plane, you’ve probably experienced a feeling of pressure in your ears that you want to get rid of immediately. Sometimes, the situation will resolve on its own. But other times, you’ll need to do something if you want to cause your ears to pop. Here’s why that happens, and what you can do about it.
What causes ear pressure?
You may experience ear pressure for a variety of reasons, says Dr. Matthew Goldman, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic. Those can range from allergies and sinus infections, to swimmer’s ear and ear infections. But the cause we’re focusing on here is changes in air pressure caused by quickly gaining or losing altitude—like during takeoff or landing in an airplane, or while scuba diving.
That sensation of your ears feeling blocked and like they need to pop happens because when the air pressure around you changes, the air pressure in your inner ears tries to adjust along with it—but it can’t always keep up.
This all takes place in the Eustachian tubes, which run between the area behind your eardrum and the back of your nose and throat in each ear—which is the area outside of the eardrum. “This tube helps to maintain balanced air pressure [in the ear],” Goldman explains.
How to safely pop your ears
As tempting as it may be to stick your finger, a cotton swab, or anything else inside your ear to relieve the pressure, that’s never a good idea. Try one of these doctor-approved methods instead:
- Swallowing: In most cases, intentionally swallowing will cause your ears to pop, because it opens your Eustachian tubes—which are typically closed—to relieve the pressure. Some people find that chewing gum or sucking on a piece of hard candy helps, because it prompts them to swallow more than usual.
- Yawning: Like swallowing, yawning also opens your Eustachian tubes and can cause your ears to pop.
- The Valsalva maneuver: Close your mouth tightly and pinch your nostrils closed, then breathe out forcefully. The key is not letting any air escape through your mouth or nose.
- The Toynbee maneuver: Close your mouth, pinch your nostrils closed, then swallow.
If these methods don’t work and your ears stay blocked, or if you’re experiencing additional symptoms—like pain, discharge, dizziness, hearing loss, or ringing—Goldman recommends seeing a doctor.