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A clogged ear can be from a cold or allergies. But if there is pain or other symptoms, it may be an infection.
6 most common causes
What fluid in the ear feels like
Fluid accumulation in the ear is caused by a buildup that gets trapped in the tissues and tubes. (It is different from wax, which is sticky and helps protect the ears.) It can feel like something is pressing on the eardrum or that water is trapped inside. But if it is from an infection or another condition, you may notice symptoms like:
- Congestion or runny nose
- Pain that radiates from the ear to the face or sinuses
- Drainage—fluid leaking from the ear. It may be clear and odorless at first and then start to look like pus.
- Decreased or muffled hearing
If you have any of these symptoms, you should see a medical provider as soon as you can.
1. Swimmer's ear (otitis externa)
Swimmer's ear, or otitis externa, is an infection of the ear canal, which runs from the eardrum to the opening of the ear. Children are most likely to get it because they have narrower ear canals that do not drain well.
Swimmer’s ear can be caused by anything that helps bacteria, fungus, or a virus get into the canal. Water that stays inside the ear after swimming is a common cause. So are cotton swabs when trying to clean ears or earpieces that create irritation.
- Pain in the ear canal
- Feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear
- Jaw pain
- Ear pain that gets worse when moving
Urgency and treatment: Even mild symptoms should be treated because the infection can spread and intensify, becoming very painful with increased drainage, swelling, fever, and loss of hearing.
To treat, your provider may remove debris and discharge from the ear canal and prescribe antibiotic and steroid ear drops.
2. Middle ear infection
Middle ear infection, also called acute otitis media, is a bacterial or viral infection behind the eardrum. An ear infection is usually from a cold, allergy, or influenza.
Young children are most likely to get a middle ear infection because of the small size and shape of the Eustachian tubes in the ears.
- Ear pain from inflammation
- Drainage of fluid from the ear
- Sometimes hearing problems
- Children may cry, run a fever, and pull at or tug on the affected ear.
Urgency and treatment: If symptoms last more than a day, a medical provider should be seen. Long-lasting or repeated ear infections can lead to hearing damage and to speech and learning problems.
Middle ear infections often clear up on their own. Antibiotics may only be needed for infants and severe cases. Warm compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers can be used. Do not give aspirin to children.
3. Glue ear (otitis media with effusion)
Glue ear is caused by fluid buildup in the middle ear (under the eardrum). It happens more frequently in kids than adults because of frequent colds and less developed, smaller tubes in the ear. In adults, it's often from acute or chronic sinusitis. It may also be caused by cigarette smoke, allergies, reflux, genetics, or bacteria, which all stimulate the production of the fluid.
- Ear fullness or pressure
- Hearing loss in one ear
- If you have ear canal pain or fever, it is not glue ear
Urgency and treatment. You can wait a week to see if it gets better on its own. If you go to a medical provider, they may prescribe Flonase.
4. Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction disorder
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction disorder refers to long-term pain and dysfunction in the TMJ, the joint that connects the upper and lower jawbones.
The TMJ is a complex joint with complicated movements. It can get strained and injured Symptoms may come and go for no apparent reason. It was thought that misalignment of the teeth and jaw, and tooth grinding, were a cause, but they may not play a role in TMJ disorder. People who have TMJ disorder may start to grind their teeth because of the condition. Women seem to be more likely to get it than men.
TMJ disorder has three types:
- Pain or discomfort in the muscles controlling the TMJ
- Dislocation or injury to the jawbone
- Arthritis of the TMJ
- Ear pain
- Jaw pain
- Hard to open or close jaw completely
- Clicking sounds from jaw
- History of headaches
- Pain in the back of the neck
Treatment and urgency Your primary care doctor may want to do an imaging test. It is not easy to diagnose TMJ disorder, so they want to rule out other causes like sinus infection and facial nerve damage.
Treatment starts with applying ice packs to the jaw, eating soft foods, doing gentle stretching of the jaw muscles, and reducing stress. Splints, Botox, implants, and surgery are not recommended.
5. Meniere's disease
Meniere's disease is a condition that causes fluid to build up in the inner ear, affecting balance and hearing. It may be hereditary or it could be from allergies, autoimmune disease, or other illnesses.
- Usually affects only one ear
- Severe episodes of vertigo or spinning sensation
- Ringing in the air (tinnitus)
- Pressure inside the ear
- Increasing deafness
Symptoms may come and go without warning.
Urgency and treatment: Meniere's disease is progressive (gets worse over time) and will not go away on its own. A medical provider should be seen as soon as you notice symptoms because Meniere’s disease can lead to a severe loss of hearing and balance.
Your provider will do hearing tests and balance tests.
There isn’t a cure for Meniere's disease, but it can be treated with motion sickness and anti-nausea medicines, hearing aids, and occasionally surgery.
6. Keratosis obturans (ear plug made of skin cells)
Keratosis obturans is a rare disease where skin cells create a plug in the ear.
- Changes in hearing
Urgency and treatment See your primary care doctor within a few days. They can diagnose keratosis obturans by looking at the ear. They should also be able to remove the plug.
7. Cholesteatoma (a non-cancerous growth in the ear)
Cholesteatoma is a type of skin growth located in the ear, behind the eardrum. While you can be born with it, it is usually caused by an ear infection.
- Hearing loss
- Pressure in the affected ear
- Discharge from the affected ear
Urgency and treatment See a medical provider soon—don’t wait longer than a few weeks. Your provider may do an imaging test like a CT scan to rule out other conditions.
Cholesteatoma is treated by cleaning the ear, taking antibiotics, and using ear drops. Sometimes surgery is needed to remove the growth.
When is fluid in the ear an emergency?
Go to the ER if you have severe symptoms that could mean it’s a perforated (also known as ruptured) eardrum.
- Bloody discharge from the ear
- Total unilateral (both ears) hearing loss
- Extreme pain
FAQs about warm or fluid sensation in the ear
Is a ruptured eardrum an emergency?
Although a ruptured eardrum usually heals on its own, the symptoms can be severe enough to need immediate care. If you have severe pain, bloody discharge, nausea or dizziness, along with fluid sensation in the ear, go to the ER.
Will I regain my hearing after my ear infection?
Hearing loss from an ear infection can be a scary and concerning symptom. In most cases, once the fluid is gone, hearing returns.
How can I tell if my child has an ear infection?
There are many signs you can look for when trying to figure out if a child may have an ear infection, even if they can’t tell you. Signs include pulling or tugging at the ears, increased irritability (difficulty sleeping, more crying, fussiness), fever, drainage from the ear, and problems with balance or clumsiness.
Is earwax bad?
Earwax is good in small amounts. It is the ear’s natural protectant and important for preventing bacterial and fungal infection. Too much earwax can cause blockage and increase the risk of ear infections and other problems.
Why shouldn’t I use cotton swabs?
Cotton swabs can push wax and debris deeper into the ear canal. They can also irritate the skin and even perforate the eardrum if pushed in too far.
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