Ear Pain on Airplanes: What Is It & What Can You Do?
Are you a frequent flyer? Are you someone who’s always planning the next stamp in your passport? If so, you may have wondered why you feel an urge to “pop” your ears while traveling by airplane. Maybe you’ve even experienced ear pain while flying. Either way, continue reading to learn how you can prevent ear pain in the future!
Ear pain is a common complaint among travelers on airplanes. Most of the time, air travel causes only temporary discomfort in the ears. However, in rare cases, it can lead to more severe pain— or even hearing loss!
Fortunately, there are some scientific reasons behind this phenomenon and some steps you can take to prevent it in the future.
The scientific reason for ear pain on airplane flights is due to changes in air pressure. When an airplane takes off, the air pressure inside your inner ear rapidly becomes greater than the pressure outside of your ear, causing the tympanic membrane (also known your eardrum) to swell outward. This can result in feelings of fullness in the ears, or even pain and discomfort.
To prevent or alleviate this feeling of fullness, pain or discomfort, you must equalize the air pressure in your middle ear, which can be accomplished by "popping your ears." Here are several easy methods for doing just that:
- Swallowing – The clicking or popping sound that you hear when you swallow is the result of small bubble of air moving from the back of the nose into the middle ear through the Eustachian tube. This tube ensures that the air in the middle ear is continuously replenished, which helps to maintain equal air pressure on both sides. To equalize the air pressure during air travel, it's essential to open the Eustachian tubes more frequently.
- Valsalva maneuver – To perform the Valsalva maneuver, fill your mouth with air, close your mouth, and pinch your nose shut. Then, gently exhale until you hear a pop in your ears.
- Decongestant spray – Another way to reduce ear pain is to use a nasal decongestant spray. This helps to open the Eustachian tube and reduce the pressure in the middle ear. However, it is important to note that nasal decongestant sprays should not be used by children under the age of six. Finally, it is important to stay hydrated during a flight. Drinking plenty of water helps to keep the mucous membranes in the nose and throat moist, which can help to reduce the pressure in the middle ear.
Chewing gum or sucking on hard candy can make frequent swallowing feel more natural. This is particularly important during takeoff and descent.
If you are suffering from a cold or allergies, this maneuver is not recommended as it may lead to a severe ear infection. Instead, try the Toynbee maneuver: close your mouth and nose and swallow several times until the pressure equalizes.
Here are some other expert tips for preventing ear pain while traveling on an airplane:
- Yawn repeatedly.
- Avoid sleeping during the plane’s ascent and descent.
- Prepare for your flight by staying well hydrated.
- Invest in good ear plugs designed for flight that have a built-in filter to equalize pressure.
- Use nasal spray 1 hour prior to landing. However, remember that overuse of nasal sprays can lead to more congestion.
- Take a decongestant 1 hour before landing and following your flight until your ears normalize.
- If you are very sick with a cold, the flu, allergies or congestion, you could consider changing your travel plans if possible. This will only increase the discomfort and delay you getting better.