Anyone who has ever flown in a plane has probably experienced the discomfort of fullness in your ears. This feeling is often followed by the sudden urge to “pop” your ears, sometimes the “popping” occurs spontaneously, and sometimes it requires some assistance. But why do your ears need to “pop” at all?
From the National Institutes of Health
“Generally, “airplane ear” occurs due to quick changes in altitude and quick changes in air pressure. In normal physiological conditions, the air pressure in our middle ear cavity is nearly equivalent to that of the external ear canal. This equalization of air pressure is maintained physiologically and contributes to regular auditory function and maintenance of normal balance among individuals.
However, the eustachian tube (the tube that connects the middle ear to the back of the throat) dysfunction may occur with any changes in pressure and failure to ventilate through the middle ear space. This may result in outward bulging of the tympanic membrane (eardrum) causing moderate to severe earache. This phenomenon can be compared with bread expanding while baking.
Conversely, due to the vacuum effect, if the air pressure inside the middle ear space reduces rapidly compared to the external ear pressure, the tympanic membrane may be pulled inside due to the pressure gradient. The eustachian tube becomes flattened during the pressure changes, and it necessitates bringing air into the middle ear. During sudden ascend or descend of an airplane, ear cavity pressure is often decreased complemented by an increase in the cabin compared to the outside air pressure. In such a scenario, the unusual stretching of the eardrum or tympanic membrane may precipitate pain in the ear. At the same time, individuals may also experience decreased hearing abilities and muffled sounds as the eardrum as it becomes unable to vibrate.”
Signs and Symptoms
Airplane ear can occur in one or both ears. Signs and symptoms can include the following:
- Pain in one or both ears
- A change in your hearing
- A feeling of fullness
- In severe cases, you may experience tinnitus (a ringing in the ear), vertigo or a ruptured eardrum.
What Can Cause Airplane Ear?
There are several reasons one might experience a problem with equalizing the pressure in your middle ear while flying, including the following:
- Undersized, more horizontal eustachian tubes, common in babies and small children, make the tubes less likely to function correctly.
- Flying while sick or suffering from allergies
- Scuba diving less than 24 hours before a flight
How to Prevent or Minimize Damage from Airplane Ear
While it is rare to experience any long-term damage from airplane ear, it’s better to take steps to prevent the problem from occurring. The following:
- Avoid sleeping during take-off and landing, so you are aware of changes happening to your ears and are alert enough to take steps to minimize damage caused by the sudden change in air pressure.
- Chewing gum, yawning or sucking on a hard candy will all help to stimulate the Eustachian tube to open.
- If you have nasal congestion caused by either an illness or allergies, consider changing your flight schedule.
- Don’t sleep during ascent and descent of flights: If we are awake during a sudden pressure change, we can practice health promotive measures whenever we feel discomfort in our ears.
- Over-the-counter ear filters are available that keep a more constant air pressure between the end of the filter and your eardrum. Please read the instructions carefully before using this product. Be aware that, in most cases, do not remove the filter during the flight.
- If possible, avoid traveling when you are experiencing congestion from allergies or a cold; both will prevent the Eustachian tube from functioning properly.
- A maneuver called a Valsalva can be done to alleviate pressure. Commonly it is done by closing one’s mouth, pinching one’s nose shut while pressing out as if blowing up a balloon. Do not blow too hard or perform the maneuver multiple times. It’s possible to cause an additional problem rather than alleviating pressure in the ear.
- It is generally recommended that you avoid scuba diving for 24 hours before a flight.
When to Seek Help
Problems with your ears generally resolve quickly once the plane has landed. If you experience pain that does resolve in a short period of time or experience discharge of fluid from one or both ears, seek medical assistance.