As more people are getting back to traveling by plane, ear pain caused by air pressure may be inevitable for some.
Usually, the pain that you feel in your ears is a minor discomfort. In other cases, it can turn into a serious issue. In rare occurrences, ear pain and pressure can result in hearing loss.
More Ear Pressure
The shifts in air pressure affect the pressure in your ears. Generally, the air pressure in the inner ear and the air pressure outside are nearly identical. When you walk up a large mountain, the slow speed of your ascent gives your body time to distribute the pressure, which equalizes it while walking. The discomfort you feel, due to increased ear pressure only happens during a quick shift in altitude. The pressure inside your inner ear and the pressure coming from outside do not have enough time to equalize. This is known as ear barotrauma.
When the airplane that you aboard take flight, it starts its ascent, and the air pressure in the inner ear quickly passes the pressure outside. The eardrum swells outward, like a loaf of bread that rises as it bakes in an oven.
On the contrary, when the air pressure in the inner ear quickly gets lower than the air pressure outside, the tympanic membrane will get suctioned inward like a vacuum. The Eustachian tube becomes flat and needs your help to bring airflow into the inner ear so that it can function properly. It doesn’t matter if you are rapidly going into a high altitude or low altitude, when the eardrum stretches it can be painful.
When experiencing this, since the eardrum cannot vibrate you will also notice some hearing loss and muffled noises.
3 Ways to Prevent Ear Pain in Flight
When flying on an airplane, you may have felt the shifting altitudes on your ears, i.e. feelings of fullness in the ear and popping. Pressure needs to be equalized by presenting as much air as possible through the Eustachian tube. Here’s how to do that:
1. Swallow or yawn - Doing this will help airflow through the nose to the middle ear, which will equalize the pressure. When you swallow, the clicking or popping noise that you might hear is actually a tiny air bubble that drifted from the back of the nose and into the middle ear through the Eustachian tube. This tube makes sure that there is regular airflow in the middle ear. This air becomes absorbed into the inner ear’s membranes and the cycle repeats. This continuous air flow makes sure that the pressure on each side of the ears remains equal. Swallow or yawn as many times as necessary. When flying on an airplane, make sure the Eustachian tubes are working more than usual and open them up more often in order to adapt to the pressure change.
2. Chew gum or suck on hard candy - Doing this will encourage you to frequently swallow, which helps to equalize air pressure.
3. The Valsalva Maneuver - To do this maneuver, inhale air and hold your breath. Then close your mouth and pinch your nose shut. Gently release the air out until your ears pop. This will open up the Eustachian tubes. This maneuver is not meant to be used if you have allergies or a cold, because it may lead to a severe ear infection. You should use the Toynbee maneuver. This is when you close your mouth and nose while swallowing several times until you reach equalized pressure. Repeat either technique as necessary.
6 Additional Tips
Airplanes and Ear Pain in Children
The Eustachian tubes in children are significantly smaller and narrower than in an adult. This is why a change in air pressure is much more painful for them. Sucking on a bottle or pacifier is helpful in order to increase the number of times the child swallows, especially when the plane is about to descend.
Older kids can suck on a lollipop, drink through a straw or blow bubbles through a straw in order to relieve pain in the ears. Before the plane ride, you may talk to your pediatrician about ear drops for pain relief.
The Risk of a Ruptured Eardrum
If you have allergies, a cold, flu, or any other similar illness, you may want to change travel plans. It would be considerate to the other people on the plane, and your illness may include a blockage of the Eustachian tube, which would prevent pressure equalization. If your eardrum becomes ruptured or if you have a severe infection, either one may lead to hearing loss or permanent damage to your ear.
If you experience hearing loss due to a plane flight, and your hearing has not gone back to normal, within several days after your flight, contact us at Pure Sound Hearing to schedule an appointment at one of our offices in Elizabethtown, Lititz, Mt. Joy, or Strasburg.