Symptoms of Airplane Ears (Barotrauma)
- Muffled or partial hearing loss during and after a plane’s descent
- Mildly uncomfortable to extremely painful ears
What Is Airplane Ears?
Even though today’s aircraft are pressurized so that changes in air pressure are minimized, many air travelers are still afflicted with airplane ears (barotitis media), which causes partial hearing loss, ear pain, and a stuffed-up feeling in the ears.
These symptoms typically begin while a plane is descending and can persist after it lands. Symptoms may range in intensity from mildly uncomfortable to extremely painful, but often clear within 20 or 30 minutes after landing.
What Causes Airplane Ears?
The cause of airplane ears is well understood. The eardrum retracts owing to rapid changes in pressure in the airplane cabin as the plane goes from a high altitude and low atmospheric pressure toward the ground, where the atmospheric pressure is much higher.
The eustachian tube—which normally drains secretions from the middle ear into the throat—exchanges air between the ears and nose, but when there is a pressure differential, as there is in a descending plane, lower-pressure air may get trapped in the middle ear.
The eustachian tube compensates by allowing a little more air to be pumped into or out of the middle ear, but this is sometimes difficult to do because the differences in air pressure in the ear and plane cabin create a vacuum that pulls the eardrum inward. In the process the eardrum is stretched (which is painful) and is unable to vibrate naturally (which impairs hearing).
Airplane ears can also be caused or made worse by a cold or allergy because the swollen nasal membranes can effectively block the opening of the eustachian tubes. When this swelling occurs, the eustachian tube, which is the size of a pencil lead, cannot open frequently and widely enough to equalize the pressure that starts to build on either side of the eardrum—and the result is pain. Airplane ears may also result from having narrowed eustachian tubes, typically the result of scarring from childhood ear infections.
What If You Do Nothing about Airplane Ears?
Most people recover quickly once air pressure has been equalized, and there are no long-lasting effects from airplane ears. However, if you travel frequently, you can take self-care measures rather than bear up to the pain and discomfort.
Home Remedies for Airplane Ears
Keeping your ears unblocked may require some experimentation with the methods described here.
- Prepare for descent. Once the “fasten seatbelt” sign is turned on and the plane begins its descent, swallow several times. This helps keep the eustachian tube open and equalizes ear pressure. If this doesn’t work, blow your nose gently; this may also help open the eustachian tube.
- Chew gum. The act of chewing (like swallowing) activates the muscle that opens the eustachian tube. Once opened, a little droplet of air can pass from the nose and throat to the middle ear, thereby relieving pressure.
- Yawn. This is a more powerful way to activate the muscle that opens your eustachian tube.
- Try a gentle blowing maneuver. Another method to unblock your ears is to squeeze the nostrils shut with your thumb and forefinger, inhale through your mouth, and then attempt to force the air back into the nose. Once you feel them “pop,” you know your ears have unclogged. This popping sensation is often accompanied by mild pain, but it usually disappears quickly. You may have to repeat this several times during your descent.
- Take a decongestant. If you suffer pain from airplane ears on a regular basis, an hour before landing spray both nostrils with a decongestant nose spray or else take a decongestant pill (such as Sudafed or a generic containing pseudoephedrine). This will help shrink membranes, open your eustachian tube, and make your ears pop more easily.
- Consider trying special ear plugs. Small silicone rubber ear plugs marketed under the name EarPlanes have a filter that equalizes the effects of cabin air-pressure changes. These may be especially helpful if a cold or sinus congestion makes it hard to relieve ear discomfort by swallowing air. EarPlanes, which are safe for children, are available in drugstores and airport shops.
Prevention of Airplane Ears
Avoid alcoholic beverages in flight. Alcohol causes the mucous membranes to become engorged and the eustachian tube to swell. Try to avoid flying while suffering from a cold or allergy. Any ear problems you normally have on descent will be magnified by these respiratory problems, so if it’s possible to postpone your trip, do so.
When To Call Your Doctor for Airplane Ears
If your ears fail to open or if pain persists several hours after landing, contact your physician. If you fly frequently and often experience pain that lasts long after your flight, consult an ear specialist.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Your doctor will examine your ear. In extreme cases your eardrum may have to be lanced to equalize the pressure.
For More Information about Airplane Ears
- American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery