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Ear Congestion

What is ear congestion?

If your child has ear congestion, he will probably feel:

  • like his hearing is suddenly muffled
  • crackling or popping noises in the ear
  • a stuffy, full sensation in the ear

Your child will usually not have ear pain except in cases related to airplane travel.

Ear congestion usually lasts for a few hours or a few days at most. It may come and go. If the ear congestion lasts longer, it may be an ear infection.

What is the cause?
The most common cause of ear congestion is fluid in the middle ear due to a cold, hay fever, or over-vigorous nose blowing. Sudden increases in barometric pressure, which occur in descent from mountain driving or airplane travel, also cause ear congestion.

How can I take care of my child?

  • Treatment
    Have your child chew gum, yawn frequently, and swallow while the nose is pinched closed. If he could have water in the ear canal from a recent shower or swim, help drain it with gravity by turning the side of the head down and gently pulling the earlobe in different directions. If he has hay fever he should also take his antihistamine medication. If your child is in pain, give acetaminophen or ibuprofen. It's OK for your child to swim.
  • Prevention of ear congestion due to altitude change
    Have your child repeatedly "pop" the ears by yawning or swallowing during the 15 to 30 minutes of descent in an airplane. If this fails, your child should try to blow his nose against closed nostrils. A baby can be given water to drink or a pacifier to suck on. The child should not sleep during descent.

    Children who continue to have this problem should take an oral antihistamine and use a long-acting decongestant nasal spray 1 hour before travel. If severe pain occurs despite these precautions, ask the flight attendant for a hot towel to place tightly over the opening of the ear (the heat will expand the air in the middle ear and relieve the pressure on the eardrum).

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?
Call during office hours if:

  • The ear congestion lasts more than 2 days.
  • Ear pain develops.
  • You have other concerns or questions.