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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.


Join The Conversation
aoitenshi aoitenshi 9 years
I hate this! I travel a lot, and though I make sure I swallow or yawn often, the tricks aren't enough to get rid of it entirely. :/
carhornsinapril carhornsinapril 9 years
i get this every time. the old "hold your nose and blow" trick works best to alleviate it, though.
sweetpeabrina sweetpeabrina 9 years
I've found that sitting closer to the front of the cabin reduces this for me. When I sit towards the rear of the airplane, it happens a LOT!
DreaAST DreaAST 9 years
I don't mind this because I just swallow and it goes away. I feel so bad because my step daughter always has such a hard time for about a day after landing because her ears don't pop back open.
Spectra Spectra 9 years
Chewing gum always helps me on flights. It also keeps my mouth hydrated in the dry plane air.
ilanac13 ilanac13 9 years
ugh - i hate 'airplane ear'. interestingly enough since i work on the 34th floor of a building - i get that when i ride the elevator and it's not fun.
MindayH MindayH 9 years
Thanks! I am flying tonight!
lrgoldman34 lrgoldman34 9 years
Ugh! This is the bane of my travel existence. As a little girl, I'd get horrible ear pain and was way too afraid to "plug my nose and blow". I remember the flight attendants use to bring me a small cup with about an inch of boiling water in it and a few paper towels stuffed in to soak it up - I would cupthe cup over my ear and the moist heat would relieve the pain. Now, it's gotten better..I mostly chew gum and try to swallow a lot. But I was TOTALLY the screaming kid. It hurt! I couldn't help it :-(
TidalWave TidalWave 9 years
This has only happened a few times for me,thankfully. Once it lasted about six hours, another time two days. It really is painful and disorienting!!
simplycutebecka simplycutebecka 9 years
I always get this, one trip was horrible when I could not get them to "pop" ruined my trip, I suffered for days! The earplug things do work for me! My one biggest grip about flying for me is this problem! :-O
Keaton7655 Keaton7655 9 years
I do all of those things and I still get it! This is the ONLY thing I hate about flying. I even had an instance where my left side of my tongue and jaw went numb. It's only happened once and I can't explain it.
ErieIndiana ErieIndiana 9 years
We always called this "ear popping."
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