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What's the Deal With: Airplane Ear?

What's the Deal With: Airplane Ear?

Have you ever been on a flight and experienced pressure or pain in your ear where your ear felt full or sounds were kind of muffled? There is a name for this condition and it is fittingly called airplane ear. More scientifically, it's known as barotrauma or barotitis media, but however you call it, the pain can be really intense and can even cause ringing or bleeding in your ear, dizziness, or temporary hearing loss.

I guess airplane ear isn't exactly the most accurate term, because it can happen while driving uphill into the mountains, or while descending down into the ocean when scuba diving. The condition occurs with rapid changes in altitude or air pressure that can cause unequal pressure between your middle ear and the air outside your ear. This makes your eardrum bulge outward or retract inward, which causes the pain, and can even cause a ruptured eardrum.

When you swallow or yawn, the Eustachian tube, which connects your middle ear to the back of your nose, opens and allows air to flow into or out of your middle ear, equalizing the pressure. Sometimes this tube can be blocked (if you have a cold, allergies, or a sinus infection), and that's what causes the muffled sound and the pain. Don't worry because this condition isn't usually serious, and the discomfort and loss of hearing should return after a few hours.

Want to know how to prevent the pain next time you fly? Then

  • If you have a flight planned and you're suffering from allergies or a cold, you may benefit from taking a decongestant nasal spray. This will help to dry up mucus from your nose and sinuses.
  • Oral decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine such as Sudafed, can be helpful but they may cause complications if you have heart disease or high blood pressure. So consult your doctor first.
  • Take your medication 30 to 60 minutes before your flight.
  • Chewing gum or sucking on a throat drop will encourage swallowing, which helps to activate the muscles that open your eustachian tube.
  • Since airplane ear happens more often at the end of flights, avoid sleeping as your plane is descending back to the ground, so you can be sure you're swallowing often.


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