During flights, most people will feel pressure in their ear. Some people suffer more than others. The pressure is more common while descending and gets stronger as the plane is closer to landing. For some, the pressure becomes an excruciating pain which may even prevent them from flying.

Normal Ear

 Pain during flights? It’s called Airplane ear!

The condition of pain during flights is known as “aeroplane ear”, and the medical term for it is “Barotrauma” (or barotitis media). During landing, the air in the ear is less dense – causing the air to expand. Since the air inside the ear expands as well, the body has to equalize pressure in the ear with the pressure surrounding the body. The air on both sides of the eardrum should be at the same pressure. If the body is unable to pressurize quickly, the pressure turns to pain, and in the worst cases may cause bleeding and even hearing loss.
More long term effects of ear infections and ear illnesses in this article.

A simple explanation to airplane ear

Think about a balloon full of air. The air inside is trying to get out, and if you put press on the balloon you feel the resistance of the air inside – the air inside does not want to decrease it size. If you press too hard – the balloon will explode. The same thing happens when you get airplane ear – the air inside the middle ear pushes out, while the eardrum pushes inside (since it expands only to a limit). The two forces cause the pain, and if pressed too hard – the eardrum may burst.

A bit about the Ear and how the pressure turns to pain

Airplane ear - pressure on ear drumThe human ear is a complex organ with three main areas: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. The middle ear is where most ear infections happen – between the ear drum and the inner ear. As seen in the diagram, the middle ear has a draining tube called the Eustachian tube. In some cases, this tube is too narrow to pressurize the air inside with the ear outside the middle ear. If the Eustachian tube is too narrow, the expansion of the air and fluids can cause pain.

How to treat airplane ear during flights

The best way to deal with airplane ear is to take some of the precautions in the next paragraph, but sometimes the pain catches you by surprise. In these cases, the simplest ways to deal with airplane ear are:

  • Suck on some candy – air flows through the Eustachian tube when you swallow, yawn and chew, so sucking on some candy will ease the flow of air in and out of the middle ear.
  • The Valsalva maneuver – inhale a deep breath, pinch your nose to close it, close your mouth and try to exhale and force air out. The pressure will flow to the Eustachian tube and open it (for some more than others).  (repeat a few times for better results)
  • The Frenzel maneuver – another version of the Valsalva, this time try to swallow with your nose pinched, and your mouth closed with the tongue touching the front teeth. Sometimes works better with a small sip of water. (repeat a few times for better results)

The above works well for most people. However, If you are one of the unlucky to be prone to develop airplane ear or ear infections, you may want to try prevention steps as well.

How to prevent airplane ear pain

The best way to treat ear pain on flights is to prevent it from happening. We gathered some advice for you:

  • OTC decongestant – you can purchase a decongestant at your pharmacy which will help prevent mucus from blocking your Eustachian tube. You can use Oral or Nasal  decongestants, 30 to 60 minutes before the flight (for short flights) or about 1-2 hours before landing (on long flights).
  • Antihistamines – sometime the mucus and congestion are due to an allergy or seasonal weather changes. The Antihistamines (available at your pharmacy) are to be taken 1-2 days before the flight to take full effect and decrease the amount of mucus you make.
  • Drink plenty of fluids – drink a lot, preferably water and not sodas. The constant drinking will drain some of the air and mucus ahead of time, so your body will be better prepared.
  • Don’t sleep during landing – make sure you are up during the time the airplane descends. When you are awake, you can make sure to follow all the steps mentioned here. Remember to swallow, drink and take a chewing gum.

Most importantly – If you know you are prone to ear infections, airplane ear or you have Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD) – don’t fly. Consult with an ENT expert and find out what can solve the problem. Read more about ETD – Eustachian Tube Dysfunction

Some more tips & tricks for airplane ear pain relief

There are some weird solutions out there, but if they help some people they might help some more. If you don’t mind looking strange or goofy, try to take two cups and a napkin. Roll the napkin in to a small ball. Poor hot water in one cup, and soak the napkin in it.  take the napkin out, put it in the other cup and hold close to your ear. The warmth and the steam will relieve some pressure and the pain.

Another common solution is to hold two cups over your ears throughout the descent of the airplane. That will look funny, but will also help to decrease the pressure (mildly, but it will).

Hope you find this article helpful. If you did, be sure to share it with your friends!

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