What is airplane ear?
Airplane ear happens when your ears are affected by air pressure inside an airplane. Normally, air pressure inside and outside the ears is the same. However, when a plane takes off or starts its descent to land, the rapid change in altitude changes the air pressure inside the cabin.
When this happens, you may notice an uncomfortable pressure or blockage in the ears. Others may hear a pop within the ears or feel temporary pain. Once the ears adjust upon landing, airplane ear goes away. In a small number of cases, the pain or blocked feeling may remain. If this happens, you should talk to a healthcare provider.
How common is airplane ear?
Airplane ear is quite common, but it affects everyone differently. Some may feel pain, while others complain of only slight discomfort (or have no pain at all). If you have a cold or an ear infection, the symptoms may be even more uncomfortable.
Most people recover quickly from airplane ear once the plane has landed and air pressure has been equalized.
Symptoms and Causes
How does a person get airplane ear?
The Eustachian tubes are slim tubes that connect the ear with the nose and throat. They open and shut every time you swallow or yawn to keep the air pressure even between the ears and the nose/throat. If air pressure changes too quickly for the Eustachian tube to react, then there may be too little or too much air behind the ear drum. You can feel this pressure difference. It can also interfere with sounds vibrating through the ear drum and the hearing bones.
Every time a plane takes off (ascends) and lands (descends), the air pressure changes and the ears need to adapt. Until the Eustachian tubes equalize the pressure, the difference between the inside and outside pushes on the eardrum. This pressure difference causes it to hurt and not work properly. Sounds may also become muffled.
The discomfort of airplane ear worsens when flying with a cold, nasal congestion or allergies.
What are the symptoms of airplane ear?
When an airplane is ascending or descending, the following symptoms can occur:
- Blocked ears.
- Discomfort or pain deep inside the ears.
- Muffled hearing.
Symptoms are more common with descent (landing), but usually clear after the plane lands.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is airplane ear diagnosed?
Airplane ear usually goes away once the plane lands. A formal medical diagnosis is usually unnecessary. However, call your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Ongoing pain.
- Persistent blocked hearing.
- Ear drainage or bleeding.
Your doctor will examine the ears, may order a hearing test (audiometry) or measurement of ear drum pressure (tympanometry). The doctor may then suggest options to alleviate the symptoms of blockage and pain.
Management and Treatment
What can be done to relieve symptoms of airplane ear?
Suggestions to help ease the discomfort of airplane ear include:
- Stay awake during takeoff and landing. This will help the passenger be more aware of changes in the ears, and so better able to react.
- Swallow and yawn when ear discomfort begins. This helps the Eustachian tubes open. The more they open, the more the Eustachian tubes can even out the air pressure. With babies, it is helpful to feed them or give them a drink or a pacifier at the time of the airplane’s descent so that they will swallow.
- 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. This simple exercise allows more air to get into the Eustachian tubes.
- Take a decongestant if you suffer from a cold or allergies. It may help clear up your ears before the plane lands.
- Wear ear plugs to help regulate pressure within the ears.
What are the complications associated with airplane ear?
Complications from airplane ear are rare. Rarely, severe pressure in the ears may result in a perforated (ruptured) eardrum, which happens with sudden pain that goes away quickly. Usually a perforated eardrum will heal without medical attention after a few weeks. Call your doctor right away if you experience these symptoms that may occur with perforated eardrum:
- Hearing loss.
- Ringing in your ears.
- Discharge from your ears.
- Nausea from a spinning sensation (vertigo).
Can airplane ear be prevented?
During the flight, it is best to stay awake during the plane’s takeoff and landing, the time when a person’s ears are more susceptible to airplane ear. Chewing gum, eating or drinking during these times will keep the Eustachian tubes more open. Decongestants taken before the flight may help the Eustachian tubes open better when the pressure changes.
Who is at risk of developing airplane ear?
Anyone who flies on an airplane can get airplane ear. Those with very narrow or small Eustachian tubes (such as young children) are especially prone to it and may experience worse symptoms. Anyone who’s had recurring ear infections or ruptured ear drums in the past are also more prone to ear problems with air travel.
When should I call my doctor about airplane ear?
If your ears remain blocked, hearing does not return to normal or if pain persists several hours after landing, contact your doctor. Bleeding, dizziness or drainage from the ears are signs of ear damage and should be checked by your doctor. The doctor will examine your ears and may order a hearing test (audiometry) or ear pressure test (tympanometry) to make sure there is not a more serious issue.