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Ear Pain On Airplanes: What Is It & What Can You Do?

This holiday season, many people will be traveling on airplanes to see loved ones.  Airplane travel can really be hit or miss when it comes to things going smoothly.  One thing many air travelers have in common is ear discomfort. Ear pressure, popping and even severe pain do not discriminate.

While most ear discomfort during air travel is nothing more than an annoyance, what happens when it becomes more serious? Unfortunately, the ear pain and pressure does, in rare cases, lead to severe pain and even hearing loss.  What is it and how does it happen?

How does it happen?

The easiest explanation is air pressure is to blame.  Normally the air pressure inside the inner ear and the air pressure outside are essentially the same, or at least not different enough to cause any trouble. Even if you were to climb up a high mountain, the speed is slow, so your ears will acclimate themselves without you experiencing any discomfort.  When it comes to quick changes in altitude, like an elevator, or in this case, an airplane, that’s where issues can arise.

When your flight takes off and the plane begins its ascent, the air pressure inside the inner ear quickly surpasses that of the pressure outside. The tympanic membrane or eardrum swells outward. Picture a loaf of bread rising while baking, and you get the idea.

Everyone who has flown in an airplane has felt the effects of a change in altitude on ears; a feeling of fullness and popping is commonplace. What you need to do is equalize the pressure, or “pop your ears”.  Here are some great ways to accomplish that;

  • Swallowing – When you swallow, that clicking or popping sound you may hear is a tiny bubble of air that has moved from the back of the nose into the middle ear, via the Eustachian tube. The Eustachian tube ensures that the air in the middle ear is constantly being replenished. That air is then absorbed into the membranes of the inner ear, and the cycle starts over again. This constant cycle of air ensures that the air pressure on both sides stays equal. When you fly, the trick is to ensure that the Eustachian tubes work overtime and open more frequently to accommodate the change in air pressure.
  • Chewing gum or sucking on hard candy – When you chew gum or suck on any hard candy, you will be frequently swallowing which will help equalize air pressure.  This is especially important during take off and descent.
  • Valsalva maneuver – With a mouthful of air, close your mouth and pinch your nose shut. Gently force air out until ears your ears pop. If you are sick with a cold or allergies, the Valsalva maneuver is not recommended, as it could cause a severe ear infection. Instead, try a lesser known method called the Toynbee maneuver: close your mouth and nose and swallow several times until pressure equalizes.

Other expert tips: 

  • Avoid sleeping during ascent or descent.
  • Drink lots of fluids in-flight to stay hydrated.
  • Yawn.
  • Try EarPlanes, specially designed ear plugs that have a filter to equalize pressure.
  • Use nasal spray 1 hour prior to landing and only as-needed. Overuse of nasal sprays can cause more congestion.
  • Take a decongestant 1 hour before landing and also post-flight until ears normalize.

If you are very sick with a cold, the flu, allergies or congestion, you could consider changing your travel plans if possible.  This will only increase the discomfort and delay you getting better.  Where are you traveling this holiday season?

Nick Eugenis
Nick Eugenis is the Digital Content Specialist at Beltone. Nick supports the digital marketing efforts of Beltone along with providing assistance to various Beltone locations throughout North America. He spends his free time with his wife, daughter and Shiba Inu named “Hachi”.

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