Airplane ear is a pain in all the wrong places. Here’s how you can avoid it.
Rapid changes in cabin air pressure often leads to a condition known as the ‘airplane ear’ or barotrauma. It develops when the airplane descends, due to the unequal pressure that form on either side of the eardrum. When the air does not travel up the Eustachian tube to equalise pressure when the plane is landing, your ear begins to ache and sometimes leads to temporary loss of hearing. The ear has three parts- the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear, and it is the middle ear that causes discomfort during air travel, because it is an air pocket inside the head that is vulnerable to changes in air pressure.
Why are some people affected more than others?
Normally, each time you swallow, your ears make a little click or popping sound. This is the moment that a small bubble of air enters your middle ear, up from the back of your nose. It passes through the Eustachian tube, which connects the back of the nose with the middle ear. Its membranous lining constantly absorbs the air in the middle ear, but it is frequently re-supplied through the Eustachian tube during the process of swallowing. In this manner, air pressure on both sides of the eardrum stays about equal. If, and when, the air pressure is not equal, the ear feels blocked.
However, for some people, the Eustachian tube does not open as easily and so the pressure may not be equalised so quickly. The common cause of a blocked Eustachian tube is the mucus and inflammation that occur with colds, throat infections, hay fever, etc.
How can you prevent airplane ear?
Swallow or chew: Suck and chew on sweets when the plane begins to descend. The act of swallowing activates the muscle that opens the Eustachian tube. Air is more likely to flow up the Eustachian tube if you swallow, yawn or chew.
Valsava Manoeuvre: Pinch your nostrils shut and take a breath in. Then, try to breathe out gently with your mouth closed, forcing air into the back of your nose. In this way, no air is blown out but you are gently pushing air into the Eustachian tube. You may feel your ears go ‘pop’ as air is pushed into the middle ear. This often cures the problem. Repeat this every few minutes until landing – whenever you feel any discomfort in the ear.
Do not sleep when the plane is descending: Ask the air steward to wake you when the plane starts to descend. If you’re awake, you can make sure that you suck and swallow to encourage air to enter the middle ear.
If you are particularly prone to developing airplane ear, you may wish also to consider the following additional tips:
Anti-histamines: Take the recommended dose the day before and the day of travel. Newer agents that do not have a sedating side effect are a therapeutic aid for both crew and passengers.
Decongestant nasal sprays: Use an over-the-counter decongestant nasal spray. When you’re asked to buckle your seat belt before takeoff, spray about four vigorous puffs in each side of your nose while holding shut the opposite side.
Air pressure regulating earplugs: These are cheap, reusable earplugs that are often sold at airports and in many pharmacies. These earplugs slow the rate of air pressure change on the eardrum.