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Someone with airplane ear

You know how flying can be one of the best ways to get from point A to point B? Well, I happen to be one of those people who just loves hopping on a plane and taking off. But it wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows for me. Back when I was about six, every time the plane took off or landed, my ears would just kill me. It was awful, and my parents didn’t really know what to do about it. The cabin crew didn’t have any answers either. To be fair, it was the 80s and air travel was still a pretty new thing. Turns out, I was experiencing something called Airplane Ear or Barotrauma. Basically, there’s an imbalance in the pressure in your middle ear and the atmosphere. Who knew, right?

Why Do You Get Airplane Ear?

When the air pressure on either side of the eardrum becomes imbalanced, this can lead to what is commonly referred to as airplane ear or barotrauma. Essentially, the middle ear, which is located behind the eardrum, relies on the Eustachian tube to regulate its internal pressure. However, if this tube becomes clogged, it can throw off the balance between the middle ear and the outer ear, which is the visible part of the ear that opens to the atmosphere. As a result, discomfort can occur when the pressure in the middle ear is either higher or lower than the air pressure in the outer ear.

The most obvious symptoms of airplane ear are pain and hearing loss, which can be quite distressing. To understand why these symptoms occur, it’s important to remember that the eardrum is also known as the tympanic membrane and is sandwiched between the outer and middle ear. When there is an imbalance of pressure, it can cause the eardrum to bulge inward or outward, leading to pain and difficulty hearing. So if you ever experience discomfort during air travel, know that you’re not alone – but also remember that there are ways to mitigate these symptoms, such as chewing gum or swallowing frequently.

Why is Hearing Affected When You Get Airplane Ear?

Did you know that when an airplane takes off, the pressure inside and outside of the aircraft changes? This causes the air in your middle ear to expand, kind of like a balloon! And this can mess with the way sound is transmitted from your eardrum to your inner ear, which can make it feel like you’re losing sound. Just remember that your middle ear’s main job is to pass sound along from the eardrum to the inner ear using a series of three bones. So those vibrations you feel in your eardrum? They’re being transmitted to your inner ear, where they’re turned into the sounds we hear. Pretty cool, right?

What is the Eustachian tube?

Pressure between the atmosphere and the middle ear must be kept the same. This is achieved through a special tube called the Eustachian Tube that releases excess pressure into the throat. Since your ears are connected to your throat, this process occurs seamlessly. However, if this tube is blocked, hearing can be negatively affected as the excess pressure won’t be released.

Although modern aircraft have the technology to maintain normal cabin pressure, it isn’t perfect. Consequently, there’s still a difference between the pressure on the ground and the pressure up in the clouds.

It’s not unusual for healthy people to experience a blocked sensation in their ears when flying, driving up or down a mountain, or changing depth as a deep sea diver. For the sake of this article, we’ll focus on what happens during flight.

Healthy individuals might experience these symptoms for just a few seconds or up to a few hours. Although rare, it can last for days or even weeks.

How Do I Prevent Airplane Ear?

In most cases, there isn’t much one can do to prevent the discomfort that comes with airplane ear. It’s a natural response as your ears adjust to the change in altitude during a flight. However, if the symptoms become prolonged or intense, it could be a sign of a problem with your eustachian tube. In such cases, it’s best to take steps to prevent anything that may block the eustachian tube.

If you have an upper respiratory tract infection, such as a sore throat, ear infection, sinusitis, or a cold, it’s best to avoid flying until you’ve treated the condition. Flying with an infection can make you more susceptible to airplane ear. Delaying your flight or considering an alternative form of transportation can help prevent such discomfort.

For people with allergies, flying is usually safe, but some may experience discomfort during the flight due to hay fever, allergic rhinitis, or nasal congestion. Over-the-counter antihistamines can be helpful in managing allergy symptoms, but seeking medical advice is advisable if you believe airplane ear is caused by your allergies. Your doctor can recommend effective treatment alternatives to manage your allergies.

If you experience severe episodes of airplane ear or barotrauma despite not having any underlying conditions, it’s best to consult your doctor to ensure there hasn’t been a missed cause. Consider alternative forms of transportation if necessary.

All in all, it’s best to take precautions to avoid airplane ear and its discomfort, but it’s not always possible to prevent it entirely. Knowing how to manage the symptoms can help make your flight more comfortable and enjoyable.

How To Treat Airplane Ear

When it comes to airplane ear, mild cases are usually not too much of a bother, and most people simply wait for their bodies to naturally take control of the situation. However, there are a few techniques you can try to alleviate the discomfort.

Swallow

Swallowing can be helpful, as it moves the muscles in your throat in a way that opens up the Eustachian tube, allowing air to pass through. You can do this by swallowing saliva, which your body produces naturally. It’s worth noting that you may need to swallow multiple times during ascent and descent, as the changing pressure can cause symptoms to recur.

There are also a few other methods you can try to improve airplane ear during takeoff and landing. Sour candy can be effective, as it usually produces more saliva than sweet candy. Drinking fluids can also help, though you may need to use the restroom sooner. Eating something you like or chewing gum are other options, although the latter may not work for everyone.

Yawn

Yawning is another technique that can be helpful, as it uses the same muscles as swallowing to open up the Eustachian tube and equalize pressure.

Pinch your nose and blow

You can try pinching your nose and blowing into it slowly. This technique can help quickly and effectively, but it’s important to stop if you feel unwell or experience any pain.

Medication is not ideal

It’s worth noting that medication for pain is usually not effective for airplane ear, as it doesn’t treat the underlying cause. Instead, it simply eases the pain signals that your ear is sending to your brain. If you think you may need medication to alleviate pain during a flight, it’s best to seek medical advice.

Treat your other conditions

Lastly, treating any underlying conditions can help prevent airplane ear or barotrauma altogether. As with any medical issue, it’s important to talk to your doctor if you have concerns or if your symptoms persist. With a little preparation and some simple techniques, you can minimize the discomfort of airplane ear and enjoy a more comfortable flight.

More info

Why do I get plane sickness?

How the ear perceives gravity

SELF – Airplane Ear

WebMD – Airplane Ear

Patient – Airplane Ear

Mayo Clinic – Airplane Ear


Photo by Kilian Seiler on Unsplash