Ear Barotrauma (Airplane Ear)

Ear barotrauma (airplane ear) happens when your middle ear is affected by sudden changes in air and/or water pressure. Those pressure changes may happen if you’re flying in an airplane, riding an elevator, diving to the bottom of a pool or scuba diving. In general, ear barotrauma is a temporary issue that goes away with self-care or when air and/or water pressure changes stop.


What is ear barotrauma (airplane ear)?

Ear barotrauma refers to damage to your ears that can happen if there’s a sudden change in air pressure or water pressure that affects your middle ear.

Some people call ear barotrauma “airplane ear” because it often affects people when they fly in an airplane. But people can also develop ear barotrauma riding in an elevator, diving to the bottom of a swimming pool or scuba diving.

Ear barotrauma is the most common form of barotrauma. In general, ear barotrauma is a temporary issue that goes away with self-care or when air and water pressure changes stop.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are airplane ear symptoms?

In general, airplane ear symptoms are mild, but they can get worse, including:

What causes ear barotrauma?

Ear barotrauma happens when air or water pressure suddenly changes, putting pressure on your eustachian tubes. Your eustachian tubes run from the back of your middle ear to the back of your throat. The tubes help maintain equal air pressure on both sides of your eardrum by letting outside air into your middle ear.

Air pressure changes when airplanes take off and land. That change happens faster than your eustachian tubes can react. The same thing happens if you do deep-water diving, as water pressure quickly changes. Ear barotrauma can happen more frequently if you have congestion from a cold or allergies. Congestion may block or inflame your eustachian tubes, making it even harder for them to manage air pressure changes.


What are the complications of ear barotrauma?

Rarely, you may develop a ruptured eardrum. This typically heals on its own after a few weeks. But you should call a healthcare provider right away if you have the following symptoms:

Diagnosis and Tests

How is ear barotrauma diagnosed?

A healthcare provider will:

  • Ask about your symptoms and how long you’ve had them.
  • Check your ear with an otoscope. This is a special lighted instrument that lets providers look inside your ear to see if you have eardrum damage or an ear infection.
  • Refer you to an audiologist for a hearing test, if needed.


Management and Treatment

How is ear barotrauma treated?

Treatment varies depending on your situation. Your treatment may include:

  • Decongestants to help with congestion.
  • Corticosteroids to reduce inflammation.
  • If you have a ruptured eardrum, you may need tympanoplasty to close the hole in your eardrum.


Can I prevent ear barotrauma?

Ear barotrauma (airplane ear) typically happens when people fly in airplanes, but it may also affect people who scuba dive. Here are some suggestions that may help prevent ear barotrauma during air travel:

  • Take a decongestant before your flight. Reducing congestion will help prevent ear barotrauma (airplane ear).
  • Remember to swallow and yawn during plane takeoff and landing. This helps your eustachian tubes open. The more they open, the more your tubes can even out the air pressure.
  • If you’re traveling with babies or toddlers, encourage them to drink fluids during takeoff and landing. That ensures they’ll swallow and avoid ear barotrauma.
  • Chew gum during the flight, especially during takeoff and before the plane begins its descent, to help equalize the pressure.
  • Blow your nose gently into a tissue to alleviate pressure.
  • Blow air through your nose while closing your mouth and pinching your nose (Valsalva maneuver). This simple exercise allows more air to get into your eustachian tubes.
  • Wear earplugs to help regulate pressure within your ears.

If you scuba dive, make sure you know and follow diving safety best practices, including how to manage water pressure changes.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have ear barotrauma (airplane ear)?

Many symptoms ease as soon as your eustachian tubes can manage air or water pressure changes. In some cases, you may need medication to manage congestion or inflammation. In that case, it may be a few days before your ears feel normal. Rarely, airplane ear causes ruptured eardrums. In that case, you may need surgery.

Living With

How do I take care of myself?

A little foresight goes a long way toward preventing ear barotrauma. For example, if there’s an airplane trip in your future, plan ahead to reduce your risk of airplane ear. If you scuba dive, make sure you know and follow diving safety best practices, including how to manage water pressure changes.

When should I see my healthcare provider?

In general, ear barotrauma is a temporary issue. Contact your provider if your ears still feel full or stuffed even after your flight is through or you’ve finished scuba diving.

When should I go to the emergency room?

Rarely, ear barotrauma may cause a ruptured eardrum. Go to the emergency room if you notice fluid coming from your ear.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

If you have ear barotrauma (airplane ear), you may wonder what happened to your ears and what you can do to prevent it. Here are some questions you may want to ask your provider:

  • What is ear barotrauma?
  • Is it serious?
  • Can I lose my hearing from ear barotrauma?
  • What’s the treatment for ear barotrauma?
  • What should I do to prevent airplane ear?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Ear barotrauma (airplane ear) is the most common form of barotrauma. Barotrauma happens when there’s a sudden change in air and/or water pressure. Ear barotrauma may happen when you’re flying in an airplane, diving to the bottom of a pool or even riding in an elevator. Ear barotrauma symptoms often go away. If they don’t, be sure to talk to a healthcare provider.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 03/13/2023.

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