Crackling or popping noises in the ears are a fairly common symptom. When patients report of crackling sounds, these are described as the sound of Rice Krispies often without any pain or discomfort. There are many possible causes of tinnitus, which is the medical term for any sound coming from within the ear and with no outside source for it. Tinnitus may sound as ringing, hissing, crackling, popping, whistling, sizzling, buzzing, humming or roaring.
Tinnitus may be nothing to worry about like when:
- You hear a rumbling sound while yawning. This is caused by the contraction of the tensor tympani muscle.
- You hear a popping or hissing sound when there is a rapid change in altitude (ie on the airplane during takeoff or landing).
In this article though, I’ll talk about what may cause tinnitus of the crackling “rice krispies” type and not of the more diffuse ringing type.
Eustachian Tube Dysfunction
The Eustachian tube is the narrow canal that connects the middle ear to the nasopharynx; it allows to drain fluid from the middle ear and to equalize the air pressure inside the ears to that of the environment.
Sometimes, due to allergies, inflammation or infections, the Eustachian tube may swell up not allowing it to function properly. This may cause a feeling of fullness in the ears, some hearing problems and in some cases the crackling sound due to the air working its way through the narrowed passage.
Eustachian tube dysfunction is considered to be the most likely cause for ear crackling.
Impacted Cerumen (Earwax)
Cerumen, commonly known as ear wax, is composed of dead cells and secretions from two different types of glands inside the ear; its function is to keep the ear canal lubricated and clean and it also has some antimicrobial properties. Cerumen is naturally expelled from the ear canal through a physiologic mechanism aided by jaw movements. In 10% of children, 5% of adults and nearly 60% of older people in nursing homes, earwax becomes impacted, meaning it causes symptoms or causes a blockage of the ear canal. This may be because of failure of the self-cleaning mechanism or due to improper self-care (ie. Q-Tips).
If there is a complete blockage of the ear canal, impacted earwax may cause the crackling sound similarly to eustachian tube dysfunction, when the air slowly finds its way through the blockage.
Otitis media may cause Eustachian tube dysfunction and for this reason it may be a cause of ear crackling. When symptoms of otitis media persist, you should see your GP as antibiotic treatment may be advised.
Crackling in ear when chewing or moving jaw: TMJ
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the joint that connects the jaw to the skull. Like any other join it may cause some problems and can be affected by cartilage degeneration and arthritis. When experiencing issues with the TMJ, patients usually report pain and clicking sounds when moving the jaw but in some cases there may be some crackling too.
Other possible causes
People suffering from Meniere’s syndrome experience attacks lasting from a few minutes to several hours characterized by vertigo, hearing loss and tinnitus. Although not common, the tinnitus may also be of the crackling type.
In some cases, people who underwent surgeries such as a mastoidectomy for cholesteatoma removal may hear crackling sounds during the first few weeks after the operation. After healing from surgery, the sound should disappear.
Side effects of medications
Many medications may affect your hearing and cause tinnitus, although this is rarely of the crackling kind. The most common ototoxic medications are antibiotics, some cancer treatments, quinine (malaria treatment), aspirin and diuretics.
Head injury, barotrauma and acoustic trauma
Head trauma, trauma from air pressure changes such as in diving or when flying, and trauma from loud noises may cause tinnitus. Although it is mainly reported as a ringing sound with hearing loss, in some cases patients also report crackling in the ears.
Treatments for crackling ears
Treatment for ear crackling will depend upon the cause of this phenomenon. It is always advised to see you family physician so that he can perform a physical examination and collect all the information needed for a reliable diagnosis such as asking about any other symptom you may experience and what medications you have taken recently. In some cases, you may be referred to an ENT specialist.
When thinking of ear remedies or ear cleaning many people think about Q-Tips (cotton swabs), ear candling or olive oil drops. These methods have been proven ineffective and with the potential to make things worse and cause side effects. Cerumenolytic sprays, which are sprays containing ingredients that make earwax softer and easier to remove, and irrigation with a syringe (without the needle!) are better alternatives.
If you are suffering from a mild upper respiratory tract infection such as the common cold, ear crackling will disappear once the infection heals. You may ask your GP if anti-inflammatories, nasal decongestants, steroids or other medications may be indicated in your specific case.
In some cases, the Valsalva maneuver may solve the issue; to perform the maneuver you should keep your mouth and nostrils closed while attempting to exhale. It is the same maneuver you may have performed to equalize the pressure inside the ears when flying on an airplane (ie. “Popping your ears”).
When to see your doctor?
Occasional or short-lasting ear crackling may be normal but in some cases it is strongly advised to see your GP for a medical examination such as when:
- Symptoms last for weeks
- Symptoms started after a trauma or injury
- Aside from ear crackling you also experience dizziness, nausea, fever, hearing loss, or other symptoms.
- There is discharge from the ear canal that contains blood or has a foul smell
- Cerumen Impaction: Diagnosis and Management.
C Michaudet, J Malaty – American Family Physician, Oct 2018
- ENT – An Introduction and Practical Guide, 2nd edition
JR Tysome – CRC Press, 2018
- ENT – Core Knowledge
P Koltsidopoulos – Springer, 2017
- ENT in Primary Care – A Concise Guide
E Cervoni – Springer, 2017
- American Academy of Otolaryngology
- US National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus
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Former paramedic, instructor and medical school student.
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