Sometimes after scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, or even just from taking a bath, you might feel like there is some water lingering in your ears. The water may even be blocking one or both of your ears, making your ears feel like they need to be “popped”. You may also experience temporary hearing loss or general discomfort.
Leaving this stubborn water in your ear canal will increase the likelihood of developing swimmer’s ear, which is an infection that occurs when moisture allows bacteria to enter the skin and multiply. The best way to deal with swimmer’s ear is to prevent it from happening in the first place by keeping your ears dry (and unclogging your ears).
Some people are more prone to experiencing swimmer’s ear than others. Furthermore, if you have narrow ear canals, have earwax buildup, or some other foreign object in your ears, then you are more likely to trap water in your ears and get an infection. If you’ve had swimmer’s ear in the past, be extra vigilant about keeping your ear canal dry and unclogged. In this article, we will discuss the various ways you can deal with blocked ears after diving so that you can prevent swimmer’s ear and feel comfortable after diving.
Symptoms of trapped water in the ear
Each time you do any activity in the water, even something as basic as taking a shower or bath, there is a chance that water can enter your ear and get stuck. Here are some common symptoms:
- Muffled sounds, difficulty hearing.
- Pressure in your ears.
- Ears feel like they can “pop.”
- Itching in the canal.
- Water leaks from your ears.
If you experience any of these symptoms, then water is most definitely trapped in your ear. Typically these symptoms will resolve themselves after the water naturally evaporates or runs out on its own.
However, if some time has passed and you still feel the sensation of clogged ears, then the water is potentially stuck in the outer ear. Typically, brief moments of exposure to water in your ears is fine. However, problems start to occur if the water is left in there.
Best ways to get rid of blocked ears after diving
Get the stubborn water out of your ears with these tried-and-true techniques:
Let gravity do the work
The most straightforward, product-free technique to get rid of blocked ears is to tilt your head or lie down sideways so that gravity will cause the water to flow out of your ear canal. To make things comfier, you can place a towel on the pillow to absorb the water and lay down on it.
To speed things up, you can gently tug downwards on your earlobe to open up the ear canal to speed up the process. You can even try jumping up and down to try to use the force of the impact to dislodge the water droplet. Also try shaking your head as well.
No, you’re not literally using a vacuum on your ears. You can produce your own vacuum sensation by first tilting your head and then cupping your palm over the ear, creating a solid, air tight seal. Keeping your ear sealed with your cupped hand, rapidly straighten out your hand to a flat position. By keeping your head tilted, it also allows gravity to assist you.
Use a blowdryer
Set the hairdryer to the lowest setting and hold it at least a foot away from the blocked ear to avoid burns. Turn the hairdryer on and gently tug on your earlobe to straighten the ear canal out and increase airflow to it. You can also try to move your earlobe side to side.
DIY ear drops
For this solution, you’ll need vinegar and rubbing alcohol. Mix equal parts of both together and put the solution into a dropper. This next step is easier with someone assisting you. Lay on your side and put three or four drops of the solution in your ear. Leave the solution for 30 seconds, then tilt your head to drain it out.
You might smell like a salad due to the vinegar, however this mix will make it harder for bacteria to multiply in your ear, and the alcohol will quickly evaporate the water, therefore it unblocks your ears and keeps it bacteria-free.
Add three or four drops of hydrogen peroxide into your clogged ear. Let it sit for 1-2 minutes before draining it out. Make sure the hydrogen peroxide is less than 10% concentration. Otherwise, you can ironically cause inflammation and ear aches if left in your ears for too long.
Over-the-counter ear drops
If you opt for the over-the-counter ear drop, make sure you follow the instructions on the label. The ear drops should be stored and used at room temperature. If they’re too cold, they can make you feel strange or dizzy when put into your ear.
What you shouldn’t do for blocked ears
The techniques described above are the recommended methods for dealing with water in your ears. Any other method, particularly sticking an object into your ear such as cotton swabs or Q-tips are NOT recommended. These products can push water deeper into your ear, introduce more bacteria, or even harm your eardrum or ear canal.
Furthermore, if you recently had ear surgery or have a ruptured eardrum, do NOT use any of the ear drop solutions mentioned above.
How does a blocked ear occur in the first place?
The medical name for “blocked ears” is Middle Ear Barotrauma or MEBT for short. MEBT is when there is a buildup of fluid, such as water, in your middle ear. In extreme cases, this can result in an eardrum rupture.
There is a chamber in the middle of your ear called the tympanic cavity. Essentially, it is an empty space that should be at the same pressure as the outside environment. There is also a tube called the Eustachian tube that connects this chamber to your throat. In other words, your mouth and your ears are connected.
At the surface during everyday life, the Eustachian tube allows the tympanic cavity to have equal pressure as the outside. Regular jaw movements such as chewing, swallowing, and yawning often opens up the Eustachian tube and equalizes the pressure.
Problems can arise when the Eustachian tube is congested or blocked. This can happen in a few ways, the most common of which are: earwax buildup, inflammation of the tube, colds, or just being born with narrower tubes.
As you descend during a dive, the tympanic cavity will get compressed. It is imperative that you frequently equalize to keep the cavity from shrinking and letting water inside. If this space does not get equalized, it becomes a MEBT.
Risks of getting blocked ears
When you have blocked ears, there are several things to worry about:
- Middle ear barotrauma: Water that is allowed to enter the tympanic cavity is painful and can result in swimmer’s ear.
- Ruptured eardrum: Ruptured eardrums are not only painful; they can also cause permanent hearing loss and balance issues.
- Infection: Infections are dangerous and painful no matter which body part it is. Any infection that occurs in the head is particularly serious since it can spread to the brain. If you think you are suffering from an ear infection, see a doctor immediately.
How long can water stay in your ear?
Ideally, you should remove the water from your ears as soon as possible. However, even if no steps are taken to do this, all of the water in your ears should naturally evaporate after 2 to 3 days. If stubborn water lingers longer than this, it increases the chance of you getting an ear infection.
How to prevent a blocked ear
There are several steps you can take to prevent getting blocked ears. Let’s start at step 0: things you should do before you even hit the water. Since the Eustachian tube is susceptible to getting clogged up due to mucus buildup, we recommend avoiding certain foods and compounds that can cause an increase in mucus production.
Do not drink milk prior to diving, since it can increase mucus production as much as 4x. Alcohol and tobacco smoke can also irritate your mucus membranes which also increases mucus production. In fact, alcohol causes a whole lot more problems than just mucus production. We recommend avoiding these substances in the days leading up to your planned dive.
During the dive, make sure you are descending slowly and gradually feet first. As the water pressure increases, you can also feel the pressure being exerted on your ears. Don’t wait until you experience pain before you equalize. If you are struggling to equalize one ear, stop your descent immediately until you successfully equalize. If you cannot equalize, then abort the dive.
There are various ways you can equalize your ears, such as the Valsalva maneuver, the Toynbee maneuver, the Frenzel maneuver, and more which you can read about in this article.
Can earplugs prevent blocked ears while diving?
Earplugs are a common recommendation for preventing blocked ears for swimming and other water sports done by the surface. However, for any type of diving (e.g. scuba diving, freediving, skin diving, etc.) you should NOT wear earplugs.
When you dive, your body is subjected to water pressure which only increases the deeper you go. With earplugs worn, there will be immense pressure in your ear due to the trapped air that cannot be equalized. Very quickly, you will experience ear pain from the water pressure and possibly a ruptured eardrum.
If you want to dive with earplugs, you need to use vented earplugs which have a valve that lets water and air escape. Unfortunately, vented earplugs do allow some water to enter the ears which can potentially lead to blocked ears after diving. If you want to learn more about scuba diving ear plugs, we recommend you read our article on this topic.
When should a doctor get involved?
Even without using any of the methods listed above, most blocked ears will typically clear out on their own within a day or two. However, if for some reason the water has not evaporated after this time, it can lead to swimmer’s ear.
When the outer ear canal is moist because of the trapped water, it creates the perfect environment for bacteria to multiply. This eventually leads to an Swimmer’s ear, or an ear infection. It is referred to as such because it often affects swimmers, but it can affect scuba divers as well.
Some symptoms of swimmer’s ear are:
- Ear pain.
- Redness, swelling, or flaking skin in the ear canal.
- Hearing loss.
- Pus leaking out from your ear.
- Any abnormality affecting your ear that doesn’t go away.
If you experience any of these symptoms, stop reading articles on the internet and go see a doctor!
It is imperative that you prevent getting blocked ears because it can be both dangerous and painful. In this article, we have provided various tips on how to prevent getting blocked ears, and how to get rid of blocked ears after diving. A blocked ear can ruin a vacation because you may be losing precious diving days so that you can recover from it.
When scuba diving, it is imperative that you take things slowly. It’s never a good idea to rush things underwater, and that includes descending to depth. Remember to equalize early and often. Use any one of the most common equalization methods, such as the Valsalva maneuver (pinch your nose and exhale gently) to equalize the pressure in your ears.
If you have water blocking your ear canal after diving, use any of the methods we discussed to remove this blockage. The most simple is simply tilting your head sideways and letting gravity do the work. You can also use ear drop dryers to evaporate the water inside.
Should you start to experience ear pain that lasts more than a day, you may have possibly gotten an ear infection. Do not take this lightly. You can possibly suffer permanent hearing loss if you leave your ears untreated. See a doctor right away.