Barotrauma

Overview

What is ear barotrauma?

Ever been on an airplane and felt as if your ears are stuffed with cotton? You probably had a bout of ear barotrauma, also known as airplane ear. This is an ear injury that happens when there’s a sudden change in air pressure. Ear barotrauma, also called otic barotrauma, is the most common form of barotrauma. Fortunately, there are several ways to unblock your Eustachian tubes, such as yawning, chewing gum or blowing your nose.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes ear barotrauma?

Ear injury barotrauma happens when something blocks your eustachian tube or it becomes inflamed. Your eustachian tube runs from the back of your middle ear to the back of your throat. It helps maintain equal air pressure on both sides of your ear drum by letting outside air into your middle ear.

When air can’t reach your middle ear, air pressure builds up in the space behind your ear drum, causing the pressure in your middle ear to become unbalanced. The air pressure difference can make your ears hurt. You may feel intense pressure in your ear. Very rarely, the pressure can damage your eardrum, bruising it or causing it to rupture.

Fortunately, there are several ways to unblock your eustachian tubes, such as yawning, chewing gum or blowing your nose.

What are common ear barotrauma symptoms?

Ear barotrauma usually happens when you’re flying in an airplane and there’s a sudden, significant change in air pressure. Symptoms include:

  • Feeling as if your ear is clogged up.
  • Ear pain that may become severe.
  • Very rarely you may feel fluid oozing from your ear. That may be a sign you have a ruptured eardrum.

Diagnosis and Tests

How do healthcare providers diagnose ear barotrauma?

Your provider will start by checking your ears with an otoscope. This is a special lighted instrument that providers use to look inside your ear to see if your eardrum is damaged or you have an ear infection. They may also do a hearing test.

Management and Treatment

How do healthcare providers treat ear barotrauma?

Your healthcare provider may recommend you take an over-the-counter decongestant. They may prescribe steroids to ease your symptoms. If your eardrum ruptured, causing you to lose some of your hearing, they may do surgery.

Prevention

How can I prevent the most common forms of ear barotrauma?

If you’re flying on an airplane, taking an over-the-counter decongestant before you take off can help protect your ears. If your ears are still affected by air pressure changes, try chewing a piece of gum, yawning or blowing your nose.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have ear barotrauma?

Your prognosis or expected outcome depends on the barotrauma condition and severity. Most ear barotrauma symptoms go away without treatment.

Living With

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

If you have ear barotrauma, 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 barotrauma?
  • Is it serious?
  • Can I lose my hearing from barotrauma?
  • What is the treatment for ear barotrauma?
  • How long will it take for me to recover?
  • Can I develop barotrauma again?
  • What should I do to prevent barotrauma?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Ear barotrauma, or otic barotrauma, is the medical term for a common problem — that feeling some of us get when we’re flying in an airplane and our ears suddenly feel as if they’re stuffed with cotton. Fortunately, a little foresight goes a long way toward preventing ear barotrauma, like taking a decongestant before your flight takes off. Most ear barotrauma symptoms go away on their own. But talk to your healthcare provider if you ear problems persist.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/12/2021.

References

  • American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Barotrauma. (https://www.enthealth.org/conditions/ears-and-altitude-barotrauma/) Accessed 11/12/2021.
  • Battisti AS, Haftel A, Murphy-Lavoie HM. Barotrauma. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482348/) StatPearls. Accessed 11/12/2021.
  • Merck Manual. Barotrauma. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/injuries-and-poisoning/diving-and-compressed-air-injuries/barotrauma) Accessed 11/12/2021.
  • Merck Manual. Altitude Illness. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/injuries-and-poisoning/altitude-illness/altitude-illness) Accessed 11/12/2021.

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