Airplane ear occurs most often during and after the descent of a plane. The pain is a result of stress being exerted on the eardrum and middle ear tissue as the plane drops from high atmospheric pressure to low atmospheric pressure. As the plane is descending, the balance between the pressure in the cabin and the pressure in your middle ear can fall out of sync, causing low-pressure air to get trapped in the middle ear.
The Eustachian tube, which is responsible for the transfer of air between the ears and nose, is under extra pressure-no pun intended- to compensate for the change in pressure by allowing a little more air to be pumped into or out of the middle ear.
The rapid change in air pressure inside the plane cabin can create a vacuum effect inside the ear, pulling the eardrum inward and causing painful stretching of the eardrum. This stretching of the eardrum is also responsible for the impaired hearing that comes with airplane ear.
Airplane ear can occur in one or both ears, with varying degrees of pain or discomfort from one ear to the other. Symptoms may include:
- Discomfort or a dull pain in your ear
- Feeling of fullness inside your ear, almost as if it is full of air or you are under water
- Moderate hearing loss
- A feeling as if you are inside a cave or under water
Airplane ear typically lasts no longer than 20-30minutes from the time a plane starts to descend, however it is not uncommon for symptoms to last for up to an hour. If your symptoms, especially pain, persist for longer than one or two hours, you should call an ENT specialist.
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Airplane ears can also be caused or made worse by a cold or allergy because the swollen nasal membranes can effectively block the opening of the Eustachian tubes. When this swelling occurs, the Eustachian tube, which is the size of a pencil lead, cannot open frequently and widely enough to equalize the pressure that starts to build on either side of the eardrum—and the result is pain.[/caption]
Some signs that you should call a specialist include:
- Sever, sharp pain
- Hearing loss
- Dizzy feeling or spinning sensation
- Bleeding from the ear
- Excessive pressure
- Ringing (tinnitus)