Popping ears is the result of pressure being equalised between the outer and middle ear so that your eardrum (tympanic membrane) works most effectively.
Ear popping explained
It’s quite common for our ears to pop as the pocket of air within our middle ear cavity equalises with the air on the other side of our eardrum outside of our body.
This pocket of air gets there via the Eustachian tube that links the back of your nose to your middle ear – its job is to equalise the pressure in your ears. The tube opens up every time you yawn, swallow or blow your nose.
Air pressure is normally the same but sometimes it can change quickly – such as when you’re in an aeroplane. When this happens, you can feel the pocket of air pushing on your eardrum – sometimes this can be quite uncomfortable.
The Eustachian tube equalises the pressure to stop your eardrum expanding or contracting too much. It’s at this point you might hear a ‘pop’.
Sometimes our ears pop even without a change in altitude, this is known as Eustachian Tube Dysfunction and is commonly caused by a cold or allergy that blocks access to the air in our ears.
What causes ear popping?
Put simply, our ears pop to equalise the air pressure either side of our eardrum.
The reason our ears pop in a plane is due to the higher pressure closer to the ground. Therefore, as your plane lands, the pressure in the cabin goes up and the air pressure in your ears has to quickly rise and the reverse at take-off.
But it’s not just altitude changes that make our ears pop. A nasty cold, allergy, sinus infection or even enlarged adenoids can block your Eustachian tube making the air pressure go doolally. This is known as Eustachian Tube Dysfunction.
Your tubes can be cleared by sniffing, yawning, swallowing, sucking a sweet, chewing gum or gargling with warm salty water (which is about as nice as it sounds).
If you combine blocked Eustachian tubes with air travel, you could suffer from ear barotrauma. If you are a bit bunged up, try the above tactics or use a nasal decongestant or antihistamine – depending on the cause of the blockage
How to pop your ears
If you feel the need to ‘pop’ your ears, what you essentially need to do is open the Eustachian tube. To do this there are several methods.
Swallowing uses the muscles that open the Eustachian tube. Try sipping water, sucking a hard sweet or chew some gum.
If thinking about being tired doesn’t work, try forcing a yawn or breathing in and out with your mouth wide open – either method should help open the Eustachian tube.
Swallowing and yawning not worked? Try taking a deep breath and then pinch your nose and close your mouth. Keep your cheeks neutral – not puffed out – and then gently blow air down your nose. If your eardrums hurt, then stop immediately – you don’t want to rupture your eardrum.
Similar to the Valsalva manoeuvre, the Toynbee manoeuvre involves pinching your nose, closing your mouth and swallowing. It can be a little tricky, so try it with a mouthful of water.
The last of the popping manoeuvres to try involves pinching your nose and making a clicking of ‘Kuk’ noise with your tongue.
Is Ear Popping Safe?
While it’s generally safe to pop your ears by yawning, chewing gum or swallowing, you need to be careful when forcing them to pop through pinching your nose and pushing air through them.
In most cases your Eustachian tubes will sort themselves out after a few days.
If you regularly have to ‘pop’ your ears or are using a lot of over-the-counter medications to clear your tubes, then it’s worthwhile having a chat with your GP.
To help clear your tubes of excess mucus, you can always try having a hot shower, steam bath, using decongestants or even doing exercise that gets you breathing heavily. Dry environments, especially airplanes, can also cause sinus congestion.
What happens to your ear when it pops?
The pop you hear, or feel, is generally your eardrum moving back into place as the air pressure within your middle ear balances out with the air pressure outside your body.
To do this, your Eustachain tube will allow air to flow back and forth between your throat and your middle ear as well as draining away any fluid that might disrupt the process.
If you’re in a plane or even driving up a big hill, the air will get thinner which won’t match the air inside your head. By swallowing, your Eustachian tube allows a bubble of air into your ear which then stops your eardrum swelling or contracting (depending if the exterior pressure is lower or higher). The point at which the air balances is when you hear the ‘pop’ and any discomfort should be alleviated
When to see a hearcare specialist
If your ears still feel blocked after two weeks, then it’s best to seek medical attention.
Your doctor can then check for:
Or any underlying condition that’s causing mucus build-up in your Eustachian tubes.
If you’re experiencing severe pain or fluid/blood loss from your ear or difficulty hearing, then seek medical attention promptly as it may be that you have a burst eardrum.
Are ears popping a sign of COVID-19?
Ear popping is not currently recognised as a symptom of COVID-19 by the NHS or the WHO. Popping ears are the result of pressure within the ear, which is most commonly caused by a condition called Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD). This is the inflammation of the eustachian tube which can lead to a build-up of mucus or fluid and can be the result of something as simple as a common cold or the flu. To find out more information on ears popping and ETD, read out dedicated pages.
If your symptoms persist, we recommend that you speak to your GP or book a hearing test to get your symptoms checked.