September 20th, 2010
11:56 AM ET

How do I drain my ears?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Monday, it's Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician.

Question asked by Becky M. of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: After taking antibiotics for a sinus infection or ear infection, what is the best way to help encourage drainage of the middle ear or eustachian tube?

I have seen many remedies online, some of which recommend using a neti pot, but I feared making the situation worse. Is it normal to still feel some congestion in the ear area even after finishing the antibiotics?

Expert answer: Thanks for your question. Sinus infections are very common, affecting more than 30 million adults in the United States each year.

In these infections, the sinuses (such as those found in the forehead, under the eyes and along the sides of the nasal bridge) become inflamed and may feel full or painful.

The eustachian tube is the channel that connects the middle ear with the back of the nose and throat. During colds, allergies, ear infections or sinusitis, the eustachian tube can become blocked by mucus and cause a person's ears to feel clogged, with a temporary loss of hearing. These symptoms may continue for a few weeks after a cold or other upper respiratory problem has resolved.

In many instances, the sinuses and eustachian tubes will clear on their own after a few days. Treating the underlying cause of the problem (sinusitis, allergies, etc.) is the first step. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help with the discomfort in the meantime. Some people require antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection of the ears or sinuses. In addition, it can be helpful to try other remedies to clear the head of mucus.

I consulted with Dr. Aaron Rogers, an otolaryngologist in Atlanta, Georgia, who shared the following information about some common remedies:

• Nasal washes: Saline rinses, sprays and neti pots don't directly treat the eustachian tube but can be a huge help for sinusitis and runny or stuffy noses. Be sure to clean neti pots with soap and water, and use commercial saline products or make the saline solution yourself with sterile or distilled rather than tap water.

• Nasal steroid sprays: These are available by prescription and can help open up the eustachian tube.

• Physical maneuvers: Chewing gum is a common way to try to keep the eustachian tubes open. You can also pinch your nose and swallow or close your mouth, pinch your nose and blow.

• Nasal decongestant sprays: These medications are available over the counter (such as Afrin) or by prescription and are especially helpful when flying (use 30 minutes before takeoff and landing). They are recommended to be used for no more than about three days at a time, since longer use can cause "rebound" swelling of the nasal passages. Of note, nasal sprays containing zinc should be avoided, as they have been reported to cause the permanent loss of the sense of smell in some cases.

• Oral decongestant medicines: Examples of ingredients include pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine. While the problem of rebound is less common with oral decongestants, some people experience palpitations or a rise in blood pressure.

• Oral steroids and antihistamines are sometimes used, particularly in longer-lasting sinus infections; however, they may have side effects such as drying up the mucous membranes of the nasal tissue and thickening the secretions. These are not routinely recommended for the treatment of uncomplicated sinusitis or ear infections.

Since every person's situation may be a little different, it's always best to talk to your own physician for the most appropriate treatment for your case. Good luck!

soundoff (1,714 Responses)
  1. Billy

    I suggest N-Acetyl-Cysteine (NAC) 1000mg orally in the morning with some Ibuprofen and lots of water. NAC is a prescription drug that is also available on the supplement market and it is used for breaking up mucous. Ibuprofen clears up some of the swelling in the tubes. The two together work really well, in fact so well that I recommend taking it in the morning so you do not choke on or inhale your sinus drainings. Talk to your doctor before taking this if you have any issues with chronic kidney stones, you are at high risk for catching pneumonia, or if you are taking any other drugs. NAC is also used to treat acetominophen overdose and vesalgia (hangover).

    September 20, 2010 at 13:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • HH

      I'll tell you what I tell the doc....if aspirin/tylenol/ibuprofen etc, worked, I wouldn't be taking time off work and spending sixty bucks for an office visit.

      The pain is excruciating, and the docs could care less.

      September 21, 2010 at 10:18 | Report abuse |
    • Billy

      @HH I agree. I don't think a simple ibuprofen by itself is going to work, it helps a little with pain and swelling, and when swelling goes down things can drain easier. The NAC is what I really suggest!

      If there is still infection I recommend doxycycline, at least that works best for me and it is cheap.

      September 21, 2010 at 18:05 | Report abuse |
  2. Martin

    Do NOT close your nose and blow. You can rupture your ear drum. At least thats what the ENT doctor told me. I'd double check this advice CNN before someone hurts themselves.

    September 20, 2010 at 13:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lauren

      You are not supposed to blow full force; just enough to apply a little bit of pressure. The article should definitely clarify claims like that so that people don't get hurt due to bad wording.

      September 20, 2010 at 13:26 | Report abuse |
    • Martin

      I remember the horror story I heard as a kid from the Doctor. He said he actually had a women come in holding the little bones that are in the ear. I don't know if thats just something he tells people, either way I would not do this.

      September 20, 2010 at 13:32 | Report abuse |
    • Aaron

      Hi Martin,
      Auto-inflation of the middle ear is routinely advocated for middle ear fluid, to help aerate the space and clear the fluid. The scientific literature is undecided on how much it helps, but a recent Cochrane Library Review seems to favor autoinflation because of it's low risk. This can be done with commercial devices (Otovent or EarPopper) or done by "popping" ones ears. Yes, in theory it may be possible to create enough pressure to cause a ruptured eardrum, this is highly unlikely because it would be very painful well before the rupture (for instance some folks pinch their noses while sneezing vigorously which generates way more pressure way more quickly and almost never cause a ruptured ear drum). It sounds like your old ENT gave you a scare story, at least in part.

      September 20, 2010 at 19:17 | Report abuse |
    • T.Storm

      I am an avid scuba diver & diving instructor, that technique "the valsalva manouver" is a very common technique for equaizing pressure in the ears. I also do it all the time when flying. If done properly & not forcefully, it is a good technique. Done too hard & yes, you can injure yourself.

      September 21, 2010 at 09:00 | Report abuse |
  3. Travis

    Habanero peppers work for me when I get stopped up.

    September 20, 2010 at 15:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JBYonks

      Habaneros are good for everything! They can certainly take your mind off what ails you.

      September 20, 2010 at 18:07 | Report abuse |
    • HH

      Peppers don't help with my ear pain, but they sure clear a stuffy nose. The high-acid diet is also good for my skin allergies.

      September 21, 2010 at 10:19 | Report abuse |
  4. ear dude

    Myringotomy tubes – as your doc about them.

    September 20, 2010 at 15:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Marcus

    You may need to see a chiropractor, I had the same problem years ago and tried everything to relieve the pressure including ear candling. The pain radiated from both ears down to the jaw and up to the temples. One expert suggested it was the early onset of hearing problems. WRONG, I could hear fine, my ears just felt like they were congested. Chiropractic is the only thing that has helped. I have to continually work on the curvature of my neck, which is somewhat straight due to leaning forward for years during computer usage, this misalignment puts pressure on the ear tube. A simple rolled towel under the neck for about 7-10 minutes, 2-3 days a week and the pressure is relieved.

    September 20, 2010 at 15:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ralph Ibraham

      you are exactly right – CHIROPRACTIC is all that needs to be explained

      September 20, 2010 at 17:44 | Report abuse |
    • Waterfalls

      Don't get a chiropractic adjustment of the neck. It could damage arteries, leading to stroke. No matter what the Chiropractor tells you, just don't. Only get adjustments below neck-level.

      September 21, 2010 at 07:38 | Report abuse |
  6. B-dog

    I have very sensitive Eustachian tubes... when they start clogging up is when I know I'm about to get a cold or something. I used to drive myself crazy yawning to keep them open, until one time I yawned with so much force that I dislocated my jaw. Luckily I have a dentist in the family who told me how to put it back to normal (VERY PAINFUL).

    What I do now is I'll sleep with a humidifier, and I'll take an adult dose of the "real" Sudafed (the one you have to ask the pharmacy for... with efedra) and that usually clears me up.

    September 20, 2010 at 16:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Rob

    Eat spicy foods, soups...IAs spicy as you can go. Ear candles are good too.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. andy

    pinch your nose and blow GENTLY.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Lily

    Ear candling is worthless. Come on, people. Do a little research. There's a great site called QuackWatch dot com that thoroughly debunks this silly practice.

    September 20, 2010 at 17:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • B-dog

      lol yeah I've seen how no matter what the candle and wax look dirty

      September 20, 2010 at 20:03 | Report abuse |
    • Bruce

      Just ask your self as the wax coated paper ear cancel burns up, were do the ashes go? Yep a waxy mess towards the bottom of the candle then the claim is made that this residue came from inside your ear!

      August 17, 2016 at 23:33 | Report abuse |
  10. Rxm13

    Roll up a few sheets of newspaper into a tall cone, stick the pointed end softly into your ear and have someone light the top on fire. Sounds crazy but my grandmother used to do this for me and it will surprise you how it pulls air and fluids out from your ear. This was the only thing that made my ears feel better. I hope there are no doctors reading this! 🙂

    September 20, 2010 at 18:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • TC

      Ok you do know that unless you're eardrum has burst there is NO WAY that lighting a piece of paper will draw out the air or fluid in your ears. Picture a real drum.....are there holes in a real drum? It's the same with you ear drum.

      September 21, 2010 at 16:43 | Report abuse |
    • Michelle

      They call those things ear candles. They can actually be purchased in some new-age and herbal remedy shops, usually made with a fabric rolled with a thin coat of beeswax. Some people swear by them.

      However, there is no scientific basis for ear candles actually doing ANYTHING to help your ears. They can not physically pull fluids from behind your eardrum. If they cause any relief, it's either a placebo effect, OR (it's been hypothesized) that the warmth from the flame is simply soothing. No idea. I haven't tried it.

      And, of course, if you burn yourself, you've got yet another problem on top of an earache.

      September 21, 2010 at 17:23 | Report abuse |
  11. edsdoand

    Years ago, our family doctor told us to rub the narrow area just below the ear at the top of the jaw line. with a pencil eraser. We did this when our children had earaches. With three children, we only ever had two ear infections that required treatment. The rest were able to get over them with us doing this several times a day. Caution: When you have an ear infection, it hurts like crazy, but it helps to unblock the tubes to get them draining again. A little tylenol administered about a half hour in advance helps.

    September 20, 2010 at 18:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • B-dog

      Please take this advice with a grain of salt. You don't want to put sideways pressure on your jaw all that often. You could dislocate it, or cause nerve damage. The same goes for candles in the ear, a drop of hot wax will feel GREAT i'm sure lol

      September 20, 2010 at 20:06 | Report abuse |
  12. jljeppson

    I'm not impressed by ear candling; I've used it more than once and seen no results though I do know people that swear by it. What I have found that works is a straw in the ear (placed in the outer rim with the opening in front of the ear canal, not inside the ear canal) and a blow dryer. If you turn the blow dryer on low heat and hold it close enough to feel the hot air being funneled down the straw (but not close enough to burn) it will relieve pressure in the ear and soothe the inflammation. I follow up a quick heat treatment (usually 30 secs or so per ear, depends on the person and their tolerance) with ear oil. I find if you do this at the first signs of ear infection, it stops the progression and clears it up.

    September 20, 2010 at 22:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. staceymac

    TRY MUCINEX – its over the counter and works like a dream every time.

    September 20, 2010 at 23:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. eric-r

    use a saline solution. it works really well and its completely safe. all of these other medications and what not you can use for sinal congestion actually have an addictive trait to them.

    September 21, 2010 at 01:14 | Report abuse | Reply
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  16. Carina Willison

    some decongestants can increase the blood pressure so be careful when taking it..

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    January 8, 2013 at 23:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Von Pendegraft

    Decongestants are drugs used to relieve nasal congestion, and come in many forms. Decongestants commonly come in pill form, but nasal sprays and liquid syrups are both available as well. Nasal congestion is caused, usually during a cold, when the membranes of the nose become swelled. Decongestants relieve this swelling by constricting the blood vessels in the area. This reduces blood flow to the area, and in turn the swelling. –

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  19. Name*bonnie Hobble

    I have had clogged ears since Nov 1st from sinuses no blood pain of pus mucus drainage down back of my throat does it ever go away I has on several rounds of antibiotics and steroids nothing went to family dr ENT spent a load of money between drs and meds did homecremedies nothing has helped ENT dr even put holes in both ear drums to equalize pressure didn't work either I yawn they don't attempt to open can someone please help me

    February 1, 2015 at 18:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Johnny Shi

    The other day I was running and my right ear seemed to be clogged. After a few days the sensation went away. Maybe using some nasal decongestant sprays could help with my future problems. http://www.drmarkmontgomery.com/montgomery/allergy-services/

    March 12, 2015 at 16:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Ceeya

    This is what I did and it helped a lot.

    I laid on my back and took the simply saline spray bottle and squirted it up my nose. I resisted the urge to blow my nose or cough up the saline solution as it dribbled down the back of my throat – I just let is marinate in my nasal passages for a few moments while I gave the clogged areas around my ears a deep tissue massage and I could hear the mucous breaking up.

    The point was to let the salt water linger long enough to reach the mucous clogged around my ears. Then it started to come down my throat and I coughed it up. then I blew my nose and it came out that way too. Then I sat over a facial steamer with hot steam mixed with salt and tea tree oil and let it steam my ear canals. this caused mucous to come up.

    I did not get ALL the mucous out in one session. It is NOT good to spend all day squirting saline up your nose because that will cause other problems. But I had such a severe case that I did it 3 times a day for 2 days and finally worked out the painful snot clogged in my ears.
    Also, I stayed completely away from dairy. I think from now on I will stay away from it.

    July 8, 2015 at 11:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Janet

    I had a respitory infection, went on antibiotics, steroids, node spray, ear infection,,,left me with left clogged ear, fluid in the inner ear tube, and above all imbalance, I've been miserable for six weeks plus...tried everything...help..

    January 25, 2016 at 19:08 | Report abuse | Reply
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  25. mikey

    I thought I had pneumonia I went to hospital. they said I had sinus infection, and dehydrated . I never felt so bad. they gave me 5 days of antibiotics. but had to take more.. the antibiotics really worked for me.my point is make sure you drink plenty of fluids if you feel a sinus infection coming on. if I had been hydrated I would not have gone through so much pain.

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    Is this possible to wipe out hardened ear wax deposited at inner canal? How draining would help in that.

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    years ago when the actual natural saline sprays came out over the counter, I decided to spray directly into the ear of concern, with my head tipped.....sat like that about 5 min. Felt the liquid dribble into my throat. Did this three times a day.
    Was finally gone in three days after a month of pain.....

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