Popping or Crackling Sounds in Your Ear: Causes, Treatment and When to Seek Medical Attention

Mar 27, 2024

Article by Hearing Partners, contributed by Christel Chue, Clinical Audiologist at Hearing Partners

Popping or crackling sounds in the ear are often compared to the noise made by puffed rice cereal. This bothersome sound typically isn’t painful and is often caused by non-serious factors. Nevertheless, there are also more severe conditions that can result in this sound.

This article will explore the causes of this sound and the process of diagnosing it. Additionally, it’ll share how to get rid of the popping and crackling sound in your ear and address some frequently asked questions.

Causes of Popping or Crackling Sounds in Your Ear

Curious about the reasons behind the popping or crackling sounds in your ear and whether they indicate a more significant issue? Continue reading to uncover the causes of this sound.

Ear barotrauma

Woman experiencing Ear Barotrauma in an airplane

Ear barotrauma is a minor issue that can cause a popping or crackling sound in your ears. This occurs due to changes in air pressure, commonly experienced during activities like flying in an airplane or scuba diving.

Buildup of earwax

Earwax is often perceived as dirty, but in reality, it plays a crucial role in keeping your ears lubricated and protected from infections. While the ears are naturally designed to remove earwax, there are instances where it can become lodged in the ear canal, leading to a blockage.

Such situations can occur when digging your ears with objects like cotton swabs. This can inadvertently push the earwax deeper into the ear canal instead of removing it. Additionally, excessive production of earwax or having narrow ear canals can contribute to the buildup of earwax.

When an excess of earwax accumulates in your ear canal, you may hear popping or crackling sounds when moving your jaw.

Eustachian tube dysfunction

The Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the upper throat and the back of the nose. It normally remains closed but opens up during actions such as yawning, chewing, or swallowing.

Eustachian tube dysfunction occurs when the eustachian tube fails to open or close correctly, often due to allergies, colds, sinus infections, structural issues, or growths in the nasal passage. This dysfunction can subsequently result in crackling or popping sounds in the ear.

Middle ear infection

Middle ear infections, otherwise known as acute otitis media, occur when the Eustachian tubes get obstructed, preventing the proper drainage of fluid. This accumulation of fluid can result in an infection, causing a crackling or popping sound in the ear.

Individuals with a middle ear infection may also experience symptoms such as fever, ear pain, swelling, inflammation, and even hearing loss, particularly in severe or chronic cases. In general, children are more prone to middle ear infections compared to adults.

Tinnitus

Woman with Tinnitus

The tensor tympani and stapedius muscles, which are found in the middle ear, play an important role in transmitting vibrations to the inner ear. Middle Ear Myoclonus (MEM) is a rare form of tinnitus characterised by spasms of specific middle ear muscles. However, it’s important to note that tinnitus can have various causes, including inner ear damage or neurological disorders.

Stapedius muscle spasms can result in a crackling or buzzing noise, while spasms of the tensor tympani muscle may lead to a popping sound. These sounds can occur in one or both ears and may vary in intensity and pitch among individuals. They may also exhibit different characteristics including rhythmic or irregular patterns.

The exact cause of MEM remains unknown, although it could be associated with congenital factors, acoustic trauma, or other tremors and spasms like hemifacial spasms.

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects the jawbone to the skull and is found on both sides of the head near the ears. 

Damage to the joint or erosion of the cartilage can result in a TMJ disorder, which may manifest as clicking or popping sounds near the ear when opening the mouth or chewing. This sound can sometimes be accompanied by pain. Other symptoms of a TMJ disorder can include muscle stiffness in the jaw, restricted jaw movement, and locking of the jaw.

Diagnosis for Popping or Crackling Sounds in Your Ear

Diagnosis Test in Hearing Partners Singapore

The doctor will inquire about your medical history and conduct a thorough physical assessment that may involve the inspection of your ears, throat and jaw. They might also suggest imaging tests like a Computed Tomography (CT) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan, or a hearing test to assess any hearing loss associated with middle ear infections or other conditions.

While a hearing test can provide valuable information in some cases, it may not always be conclusive for diagnosing the specific cause of popping or crackling sounds. Complementary tests such as tympanometry and acoustic reflex tests may be more useful in diagnosing conductive conditions. Tympanometry assesses the eardrum’s movement, while the acoustic reflex test evaluates nerve pathways and the contraction of the middle ear tendons.

These tests, when combined with a thorough physical examination, can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the underlying condition causing the symptoms.

Speak to our audiologists today

If you’re hearing popping or crackling sounds in your ear, book an appointment to get your ears checked by our hearing care professionals today.

Treatment for Popping or Crackling Sounds in Your Ear

Crackling or popping sounds in the ears may not always require treatment, especially if it happens occasionally. Moreover, if the sounds are occurring due to ear barotrauma, you can try equalising the pressure in your middle ear by swallowing, yawning or chewing.

However, if the sounds are caused by other conditions, treatment may be necessary depending on the underlying cause. These are some potential treatment options that may be recommended by your doctor:

  • Ear wax removal

If the sound is caused by a buildup of earwax, your hearing care professional may recommend ear wax removal as a treatment option. This can involve using ear drops or undergoing ear irrigation or microsuction.

Ear drops can aid in loosening the earwax, making it easier to remove. This will be prescribed by your doctor. Ear irrigation and microsuction are safe methods for removing earwax, and are typically performed by ENT doctors in a clinical setting.

  • Antibiotics

In cases where the popping or crackling noise is a result of a serious ear infection, your doctor might suggest the use of antibiotics.

  • Allergy medication

Using an over-the-counter decongestant or allergy medication can help alleviate any ear congestion and popping sounds while you allow your body to heal from the allergic reaction.

  • Placement of ear tubes

To alleviate pressure and drain fluid from your ear, your doctor may insert tubes into your eardrums. They may also open up the Eustachian tubes using a small balloon catheter to address Eustachian tube dysfunction.

  • Physical therapy exercises

Physical therapy exercises such as jaw strengthening and stretching exercises can potentially help to address TMJ disorders. Additionally, manual therapy can effectively stretch the soft tissues and muscles in the jaw, improving overall motion and flexibility.

FAQs About Popping or Crackling Sounds in Your Ear

Is a popping or crackling sound in my ear serious?

Popping or crackling sounds in the ear are usually not a cause for concern as most cases aren’t serious. Nevertheless, some instances may signify a more significant issue such as an ear infection or hearing loss.

If the crackling or popping sounds persist for more than 24 hours or if you experience additional symptoms like fever, intense headaches or a decline in hearing, we recommend seeking medical attention from an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor or an audiologist.

Will the popping or crackling sound go away on its own?

Yes, most instances of popping or crackling sounds in the ear aren’t serious and will typically resolve without medical intervention. However, in some cases, the sounds may not go away on their own and will require treatment from a doctor.

When should I see a doctor for popping or crackling sounds in my ear?

If the sounds persist for more than 24 hours or begin to affect your daily routines, we recommend consulting with an audiologist or an ENT doctor. Additionally, seeking medical attention is crucial if the crackling or popping sounds are intense or if there are persistent symptoms like fever, severe headache or hearing difficulties.

While the popping or crackling sounds described in this article typically refer to physical sensations within the ear, it’s important to note that some individuals with nerve disorders may report similar sensations, which are not distortions of sounds heard.

In such cases, you may require further evaluation by a healthcare professional specialising in neurological or other conditions.

Can I prevent popping or crackling sounds in my ear?

Some good habits can help reduce the chances of popping or crackling sounds in your ears. This includes:

  • Good hygiene practices: To prevent respiratory infections, it’s important to wash your hands regularly and refrain from sharing personal items. These simple measures can help reduce the risk of Eustachian tube dysfunction, a common complication associated with such illnesses.
  • Avoid digging your ears: Digging your ears with objects such as cotton swabs can push earwax deeper into your ear canal, increasing the risk of blockage in your ear canal. Additionally, using your fingers to dig your ears can increase the chances of an ear infection as you may accidentally scratch the delicate skin of your ear canal.
  • Avoid environmental irritants: Avoiding environmental triggers such as allergens and secondhand smoke can lower the risk of Eustachian tube dysfunction. However, it’s also important to recognise that other factors, including genetic predispositions and anatomical variations, can also contribute to the condition.

Suspect you might have hearing loss?

Your ears play an important role in your daily life and should not be neglected.

Speak to our hearing care professionals regarding your concerns today.