Have you ever been flying and noticed a baby crying during takeoff or landing? It’s mostly likely due to discomfort caused by a change in ear pressure as the airplane ascends or descends. You’ve probably even experienced the phenomenon yourself.
Let’s take a closer look at what causes ear pressure problems when flying, what signs to watch for, and how to prevent pain and discomfort.
What is Airplane Ear and What Causes It?
In the audiology world, we refer to this condition as ear barotrauma or barotitis media. According to the Mayo Clinic, however, it’s also commonly known as airplane ear. In simple terms, airplane ear is when the pressure inside your ear is out of equilibrium with the pressure outside your ear.
The most common cause of this condition is a rapid change in ear pressure, such as what you experience during takeoff or landing when flying. Your eustachian tubes, which regulate ear pressure, can’t react quickly enough. When you have other conditions that block the eustachian tubes, such as a cold, sinus infection, or ear infection, you’re at an increased risk of experiencing discomfort from a rapid change in ear pressure.
Signs and Symptoms of Airplane Ear
Here are some of the most common symptoms of airplane ear to watch out for:
- Pain or discomfort in one or both ears
- A feeling of fullness or ‘plugged’ ears
- Muffled hearing or mild hearing loss
- Tinnitus (a ringing in your ears, typically only in severe cases)
Usually, you can relieve ear pressure problems by yawning, swallowing, or chewing. Other times, however, symptoms become severe and you may need to schedule an appointment with your audiologist or other doctor.
7 Ways to Prevent Ear Pressure Problems When Flying
Rather than having to deal with the troublesome side effects of ear pressure changes, here’s how you can prevent them from happening in the first place:
- Yawn and swallow – When you do this during takeoff and landing, the muscles that open your eustachian tubes are engaged.
- Use the Valsalva maneuver – This is a fancy name for a simple procedure that can help relieve ear pressure problems by equalizing the pressure in your ears with that of the cabin. First, fill your mouth with air. Then, close your mouth and nose while simultaneously forcing air out gently.
- Stay awake – No, not for the whole trip – just for takeoff and landing! When you do, you’ll have a better opportunity to practice these tips for preventing ear pressure changes.
- Choose another form of transportation – If you have a cold, ear infection, or sinus congestion, flying may not be your best option. If possible, find another way to get to your desired destination.
- Use nasal spray – If you must fly while you have nasal congestion, try using an over-the-counter nasal spray within a half hour of takeoff or landing.
- Use a decongestant – As long as it’s okay with your doctor and not contraindicated due to another health condition, you can use a decongestant before or during your flight to relieve congestion.
- Wear filtered earplugs – Available for purchase at your local pharmacy, these earplugs can help equalize air pressure during takeoff and landing.
When in Doubt, Talk to Your Hearing Healthcare Professional
If you have concerns about your ear health before flying, don’t be afraid to talk to your audiologist or doctor prior to your flight. If you experience airplane ear while flying, and symptoms persist for more than a few days, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider right away.
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