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Airplane Ear: What Travelers Need To Know About Flying and Ear Pain 

Published on: November 18, 2021 |
Airplane ear is annoying but usually not serious

Airplane ear. It may not sound like much, but if you suffer from ear pain while flying, it’s can really ruin your flight, And if it persists, it can interfere with your ability to enjoy your trip after your plane touches down.

This ear pain rarely leads to complications, such as permanent hearing loss or chronic tinnitus (ringing in the ear). So the good news is that airplane ear is a common problem that usually responds to self-care and heals with time. 

If you’ve ever experienced it, you’re not alone. Reddit threads are filled with people seeking or offering remedies for airplane ear.

Well, what is “Airplane Ear?”

Airplane ear is the colloquial term for a malady clinicians call barotrauma, barotitis media, or aerotitis media. 

According to a recent peer-reviewed review in the open-access journal, AIMS Public Health, this common ailment tends to affect many air travelers, usually when their planes are ascending or descending. 

Symptoms of airplane air can include:

  • Pain
  • Pressure
  • Clogged ears
  • Feeling fullness or that your ear (or ears) are “popping”
  • Temporary hearing loss or muffled hearing

Why do your ears clog while flying?

The short answer:  It is due to the change in air pressure, which occurs during the plane’s climb or descent. 

The longer answer: Our ears have a narrow passage, known as the eustachian tube, which connects to the middle ear and helps maintain equal air pressure on both sides of the eardrum. 

When the pressure in the middle ear and the pressure outside it (e.g., in the airplane) don’t match up, the eardrum can’t vibrate normally or react fast enough to the rapid pressure changes. 

There may be too little or too much air trapped behind the eardrum, which pushes on the eardrum, causing problems.

Why do some people get “airplane ear” and others don’t? 

Some people are more prone to ear pain when flying than others

Some people are more prone than others to ear pain when flying

If you find yourself writhing in pain during a flight, you may wonder why others sitting around you seem totally unaffected, flying in the same airplane under the same conditions. 

Some people are simply more prone than others to ear pain during flights.  And some travelers don’t experience it at all.

Factors that may place you at greater risk for ear pain when flying include:

  • You have a small eustachian tube (most common in infants and toddlers)
  • You are flying with a cold
  • You have a sinus infection
  • You suffer from allergies
  • You have a middle ear infection
  • You are napping during rapid air pressure changes, which prevents you from yawning or swallowing, which can help relieve pressure)

An even smaller proportion of travelers experience associated headaches when flying.

Making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear: How can I prevent or minimize ear pain when flying?

These tips can be helpful, especially during the plane’s ascent and descent. All are designed to keep the eustachian tubes open:

  • Yawn and swallow frequently. This helps activate the muscles in your eustachian tubes
  • Suck on candy or chew gum
  • Eat or drink
  • Pinch your nostrils and gently blow through them while keeping your mouth closed. (Known as the Valsalva maneuver, this can help equalize the pressure between your ears and the cabin of the plane.) You can also blow your nose gently into a tissue.
  • Avoid sleeping
  • If you have a stuffy nose, use an over-the-counter nasal spray approximately 30 minutes prior to take-off and landing (Avoid using too often, since that can increase your congestion.)
  • Take an oral decongestant pill (these should be avoided, however, if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, a heart rhythm disorder or you are pregnant)
  • If you have allergies, consult your allergist about taking an allergy pill about an hour prior to your flight.
  • Consider special silicone earplugs, such as EarPlanes or FlyFit. Known as filtered earplugs, these are inexpensive, disposable, and can help equalize eardrum pressure. They can be purchased at drug stores, airport gift shops, online, or from hearing clinics. (Keep in mind that you’ll still need to yawn and swallow to help relieve pressure.)
  • If you have an ear infection or a bad cold, it may be prudent to delay your travel.

What do I do if the symptoms are chronic or persist?

If ear pain is chronic or persistent, consult with a physician

If ear pain is chronic or persistent, consult with a physician

Airplane ear usually resolves once the plane lands and the air pressure is equalized, and it doesn’t require treatment. 

But alert a medical professional to rule out more serious problems (like a perforated eardrum) if you experience: 

  • Persistent pain
  • Vertigo (dizziness)
  • Impaired hearing
  • Ear discharge
  • Ringing in the ears

In some very chronic and severe cases, especially when someone is obliged to fly very often, a physician may recommend surgery that entails placing tubes through the eardrum to stimulate airflow to the middle ear.

However, rest assured while you catnap during the middle of the flight: In most cases, ear pain after flying is short-lived and can usually be averted if travelers remain vigilant and take appropriate preventative measures before and during their flights. 

About Sheryl Kraft:

Sheryl is a freelance journalist and blogger who specializes in health, nutrition, wellness, fitness and spa travel for major publications and websites. Her work has appeared in AARP, Prevention, Chicago Tribune, Family Circle, Women’s Day, Weight Watchers, WebMD, Everyday Health, HealthyWomen, Parade and more. 


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