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What is 'Airplane Ear'?

Updated: Dec 21, 2018

Pain in your ears is just about the worst thing when facing a long journey. Most common on flights, due to the change in pressure during a flight's descent, earaches can be extremely painful.

This particularly uncomfortable ear pain, often accompanied by partial hearing loss and that feeling as if your head is stuffed into a bucket, is fittingly referred to as airplane ear or Barotrauma.

Everyone has their own solution for the dreaded in-flight earache, but does sucking on cinnamon candy or chewing gum really help?

We've scoured the Internet for some of the best and most bizarre remedies for preventing and relieving travel-induced earaches and infection.

To better understand how to treat airplane ear, we should first identify the cause(s).

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.

Symptoms of 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.

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.

Some signs that you should call a specialist include:

  • Sever, sharp pain

  • Hearing loss

  • Nausea

  • Dizzy feeling or spinning sensation

  • Bleeding from the ear

  • Excessive pressure

  • Ringing (tinnitus)


Yawn or Chew Gum

They both activate the muscles that open up the Eustachian tubes and help with the transfer of air from the middle ear. Try to be proactive and start warming up your muscles half an hour before descent.

Take a Decongestant

Just as they can help to clear congestion or open up nasal passages when fighting allergies or a cold, decongestants and antihistamines taken in advance can help open up the Eustachian tubes.

Airplane ears may also result from having narrowed Eustachian tubes, typically the result of scarring from childhood ear infections.

Drink Through a Straw - Infant / Child Remedy

The common theme to combating airplane ear is getting the Eustachain tubes to open, which can also be accomplished by sucking through a straw. The sucking movement helps activate the muscles that open the tubes, helping prevent air from being trapped inside the middle ear and allowing your tubes to do their jobs in transferring air.

It can be near impossible to get a small child to yawn and calm down while enduring a painful in-plane earache, which is why handing them a cup with a straw to suck through is an effective remedy for children. For babies who need help, a bottle is the best way to help open up those Eustachian tubes.

This is a good method for a baby, who can help relieve the pain by sucking on a bottle prior to and during descent.

Consult a physician before taking any medication to treat an earache.

If you are traveling to, or live in Colorado, contact the Colorado Voice Clinic.



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