Airplane Ear: When a sudden descent is too much for the eardrum

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Dr. Steinberg
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You have likely experienced your ears popping while flying on an airplane. Feeling ear pressure, popping, and discomfort while traveling on planes is common. While this discomfort is momentarily unpleasant, it is typically harmless. But it can actually become more serious, producing severe pain and even hearing loss. There are strategies you can practice to prevent experiencing ear pain while traveling, protecting your hearing health and allowing you to be on planes more comfortably.

Air Travel & Ear Pressure 

What your ears go through on a plane is all due to air pressure. Typically, the pressure in the inner ear matches the air pressure outside. When the air pressure outside changes and the pressure in the inner ear does not have time to catch up and level out, this causes issues known as barotrauma. A dramatic change in air pressure becomes too much for the eardrum and this causes it and surrounding small blood vessels to rupture.

The air pressure in aircrafts is usually between 5,000-8,000 feet, lower than air pressure at sea level. But as a plane increasingly ascends, the air pressure in the inner ear increases while the air pressure on the plane stays the same (as it was on the ground). This causes the eardrum to swell and balloon. This involves the Eustachian tube (responsible for maintaining the pressure in the ear) to flatten. When the plane starts to descend, the air pressure begins to increase towards sea level. This causes the eardrum to push inward, also causing discomfort.

Impact of Air Travel on the Eardrum 

While changes in air pressure can cause mild discomfort for some, it can produce more severe symptoms for others. This includes intense pain that is produced by extreme pressure in the ears. This pressure can also lead to a perforated eardrum which is a tare or cut in the eardrum. Most eardrums heal and close on their own (6-8 weeks) but perforation can impact hearing. Smaller perforations can cause minimal hearing challenges whereas larger tares can impact hearing more severely. If one’s eardrum does not heal naturally, then surgery may be recommended. This could especially be the case if hearing loss continues to be experienced.

In addition to ear pain and a perforated eardrum, another effect of changing air pressure is the impact it can have on teeth. Air in the spaces around the nerves can expand and contract which can cause teeth to feel sore. These symptoms can be uncomfortable, painful, and have health implications. If you tend to be more impacted by changes in air pressure while flying, it is useful to practice strategies that provide effective relief.

Tips to Prevent Ear Pain 

There are a few tips you can practice to prevent ear pain while flying. Most people feel the effects of changing altitude and air pressure in the ears. There are ways you can equalize the pressure in the ears by using strategies that provide air via the Eustacian tube. This includes:

  • Swallowing: if you swallow while flying, you will likely hear a clicking or popping sound. This is a tiny air bubble that has made its way from the back of the nose into the middle ear through the Eustachian tube. This helps replenish the air in the idle ear, helping air pressure equalize.
  • Clearing the ears: you can do this by breathing in a mouthful of air, closing your mouth, and shutting your nostrils by pinching them. Slowly letting air out until your ears pop opens up the Eustachian tube. Do not try this strategy if you have a cold or allergies because it could cause an ear infection
  • Chewing gum: this movement causes you to consistently swallow which helps level out the air pressure in the ears.

Additional tips that can help you avoid ear pain on flights include: stay awake during takeoff and landing, stay hydrated, yawn frequently, use ear plugs designed to equalize pressure in the ears. Practicing these strategies can help you alleviate any discomfort and ear pain you experience on flights.

Contact us today to learn more about the impact flying and changing air pressure can have on the ears.