Airplanes and ear pain – What to do and Why it happens?

Airplane journey is one of the most exciting journey one can have. But not for all. It doesn’t really matter about the money you paid or the leg space. Traveling in first class or coach will also not matter. But there is one common problem faced by all i.e. ear discomfort. Airplanes and ear pain are associated with each other.

Those who have flown in airplanes must have experienced this discomfort at least once. It includes ear pressure, popping and severe pain. Most of the time this discomfort is nothing more than an annoyance, but what if it becomes serious? Sometimes this ear pressure and pain may become serious and lead to hearing loss. So, it’s better to take precautions before, during and after your airplane journey.

Read more: Ear Infection Is One Of The Main Cause Of Hearing Loss

Why does this happen?

This all revolves around one thing i.e. rapid change in Air Pressure. Barotrauma is the condition in which there is inflammation of middle ear causing severe ear pain. Generally, the air pressure inside and outside the ear is same, or at least not troublesome. Even while hiking to the mountaintop, the ascent speed is slow allowing enough time for air pressure to equalize. The problem arises when the altitude change is rapid, like in air travel. The air pressure inside and outside the ear doesn’t get enough time to equalize.

As the flight takes off, the air pressure inside the ear surpasses that of pressure outside the ear. This is due to high ascent speed, hence causing the eardrum to swell outwards.

Now let’s see the opposite case. If air pressure inside the ear decreases rapidly, it will result in tympanic membrane being sucked inwards, just like a vacuum effect. The stretching of the eardrum will lead to pain whether ascending or descending.

Hence, eardrums will not vibrate which lets you experience decreased hearing and muffled sounds.

Prevention is better than Cure

One must have felt the effect of the change in altitude while their air travel; feeling of fullness and popping. The pressure needs to be equalized by introducing as much air as possible via the Eustachian tube. For that, certain measures are given below:

  • Swallowing

While swallowing the air moves from the back of the nose to the middle ear through Eustachian Tube. It ensures that the air in the middle ear is replenished constantly. The inner ear membrane absorbs the air and the cycle starts over again. This constant cycle ensures the equality of air pressure on both the sides.

  • Chewing Gum or sucking on hard candy

This will stimulate frequent swallowing and helps to equalize the air pressure. For infants, the change in air pressure can be more excruciating as they have narrow Eustachian Tube. So, a bottle or pacifier will be better to increase swallowing, especially by descents. For older children, lollipops, drinking through a straw or bubble blowing through a straw will relieve the pain. Before taking your child for an air travel, talk to your pediatrician about the pain-relieving eardrops for the flight.

  • Valsalva Maneuver

This technique is basically practiced by deep-sea divers to unblock their ear while the pressure buildup. Close your mouth as well as your nose. Do as you are blowing your nose. Do this until you hear a pop. Repeat the process until the air pressure equalizes. This process is not recommended if you have cold or allergy as it can cause a severe ear infection. Instead, try Toynbee Maneuver; close your nose and mouth and swallow until the air pressure equalizes.

  • Use filtered Ear Plugs

Health Professionals suggest the use of filtered earplugs as it will reduce discomfort and stagger the external air pressure. Therefore, make sure to have an earplug while air travel.

  • Choose when to travel

Must check your health before planning any air travel. Avoid air travel if you are having a sinus infection, cold or nasal congestion. The condition may get worse while flying.

Some Expert Tips:
  • Yawn while ascent or descent.
  • Must not sleep while ascent or descent.
  • Have lots of fluid in flight to stay hydrated.
  • Have decongestants an hour prior to taking off and post-flight until ears normalize.
  • Use nasal spray or anti-allergic medicines, an hour before take off and only as needed. Avoid its overuse.


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