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Ever had a cold? You've probably experienced muffled hearing or a plugged up sensation in the ear. But, have you ever experienced a crackling noise in your ear? I have many patients who report this symptom. Millions of people experience crackling in the ear, which patients often describe as a “Rice Krispies-like” sound in the ear due to its similarity to the sound the cereal makes.
In this article we'll cover the common causes of this condition and helpful tips to treat crackling in the ear at home.
What Causes Crackling in the Ear?
There are many potential causes of crackling in the ear. But first, let's talk about the most common cause: Eustachian tube dysfunction.
Your middle ear space is connected to sinus passages and upper throat via a narrow tube that opens and closes to equalize pressure, drains fluid, and prevents infection in the middle ear.
When the Eustachian tube does not properly open and close, it can create a plugged feeling in the ear and a crackling, clicking, or popping sound. Sometimes patients also experience ear pain, muffled hearing, or even dizziness.
The video below goes in-depth into exactly what is happening inside your ears during a bout with Eustachian tube dysfunction.
What Causes Eustachian Tube Dysfunction?
Some common causes of Eustachian tube dysfunction include:
- Ear infection or a cold
- Irritants, such as air pollution or cigarette smoke
Any of these conditions can introduce inflammation or obstruction to the middle ear. In addition, children are more prone to ear infections due to the more horizontal configuration of their Eustachian tube, which shifts in adulthood to allow better drainage from the middle ear and sinus cavities over time.
Additionally, causes include:
- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder
- Middle ear muscle spasms
- Earwax build-up
Symptoms of TMJ often include pain and stiffness in the jaw. As the jaw muscles are located near the ear, tension or injury to the joint or cartilage can affect the ear and contribute to a crackling sound. An ENT will evaluate middle ear health or clean the ears in the case of wax build-up.
Tinnitus and Ear Crackling
Tinnitus is the presence of noises in the ear without an external stimulus. Tinnitus sounds different for everyone. Some of my patients describe it as ringing, buzzing, humming, chirping, whooshing, clicking, or electrical powerline noise. It's possible to have both tinnitus and Eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD), and ETD can cause an increase in the volume of your tinnitus. It’s important to seek treatment for anything that may be causing or worsening your tinnitus.
For example, if you have an underlying infection or middle ear disorder, you'll want to get treatment first before considering tinnitus management strategies. As part of your evaluation, you'll have a hearing test and a physical exam to evaluate any medical conditions contributing to your symptoms.
Home Remedies for Crackling in the Ear
If you experience occasional crackling in your ear, several home remedies may help alleviate symptoms.
To equalize the pressure in your ears, you can do the Valsalva maneuver by following these steps.
You'll start by pinching your nose, keeping your mouth closed, and then forcefully exhaling against the closed airway. This maneuver takes only a few seconds and increases the pressure in the sinuses and chest.
Note: this is a temporary fix, but it should not be overused. If you feel dizzy as a result, you should avoid this technique.
Over the Counter Decongestants or Medications
If you suffer from allergies or congestion, over the counter decongestants or antihistamines can help to reduce congestion. For those with pain or pressure, Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can help provide relief. Consult with your physician if over the counter products are ineffective or if you use them regularly.
A saline nasal spray can help to clear the sinuses. For those with allergies or mild congestion, this can help provide temporary relief.
Manage Ear Wax
If you are prone to earwax buildup, a few drops of mineral oil will help to soften the wax. Then, in the shower, allow some water to flush out the ears gently.
Note: anyone with an active eardrum perforation, PE tubes in the ears, or Swimmer's ear (otitis externa) should avoid using drops or flushing the ear and consult a physician regarding concerns.
Certain exercises can help alleviate TMJ pain, discomfort and improve the crackling sound. For example, try gently massaging the jaw, stretching, or relaxing the jaw. Read more about exercises to try here.
When to See a Doctor and How They Can Help
We've reviewed many of the common causes of crackling. However, in some cases, crackling in the ears may be caused by something more serious such as an infection or tumor that requires medical management. For example, if your symptoms last more than two weeks despite trying at-home remedies.
In that case, it is essential to seek medical attention from an ENT specialist who can diagnose any underlying conditions and provide appropriate treatment options. Treatment might include antibiotics for an infection, steroids for allergies, or surgery for tumors or growths in the middle ear.
Crackling in the ears is a common symptom with many potential causes depending on its severity and duration. While mild cases can usually be treated with home remedies such as hydration and relaxation techniques, more severe cases should be examined by a doctor who can determine any underlying illnesses or infections that need treatment.
Remember that if your symptoms do not subside after trying simple at-home remedies for over two weeks, it’s best to see a doctor who can help diagnose and treat any underlying condition causing discomfort.