Ears, Altitude and Airplane Travel


Have you ever wondered why your ears pop when you fly on an airplane? Or why, when they fail to pop, you get an earache? Have you ever wondered why the babies on an airplane cry so much during descent? Ear problems are the most common medical complaint of airplane travelers, and while they are usually simple, minor annoyances, they occasionally result in temporary pain and hearing loss. It is the middle ear that causes discomfort during air travel, because it is an air pocket inside the head that is vulnerable to changes in air pressure. Normally, each time (or each 2nd or 3rd) you swallow, your ears make a little click or popping sound because a small bubble of air has entered your middle ear, up from the back of your nose. It passes through the Eustachian tube, a membrane-lined tube that connects the back of the nose with the middle ear. The air in the middle ear is constantly being absorbed by its membranous lining and resupplied through the Eustachian tube. In this manner, air pressure on both sides of the eardrum stays about equal. If and when, the air pressure is not equal the ear feels blocked.

How can air travel cause problems?

Air travel is sometimes associated with rapid changes in air pressure. To maintain comfort, the Eustachian tube must open frequently and wide enough to equalize the changes in pressure. This is especially true when the airplane is landing.

How to unblock your ears

Swallowing activates the muscle that opens the Eustachian tube. You swallow more often when you chew gum or let mints melt in your mouth. These are good air travel practices, especially just before take-off and during descent. Yawning is even better. Avoid sleeping during descent, because you may not be swallowing often enough to keep up with the pressure changes. If yawning and swallowing are not effective:
  • Pinch your nostrils shut
  • Take a mouthful of air
  • Use your cheek and throat muscles to force the air into the back of your nose as if you were trying to blow your thumb and fingers off your nostrils. When you hear a loud pop in your ears, you have succeeded. You may have to repeat this several times during descent.

Babies’ ears

Babies cannot intentionally pop their ears, but popping may occur if they are sucking on a bottle or pacifier. Feed your baby during the flight, and do not allow him or her to sleep during descent.

Precautions

When unblocking your ears, you should not use force. The proper technique involves only pressure created by your cheek and throat muscles. If you have a cold, a sinus infection or an allergy attack, it is best to postpone an airplane trip. If you recently have undergone ear surgery, consult with your surgeon on how soon you may safely fly.

What about decongestants and nose sprays?

Many experienced air travelers use a decongestant pill or nasal spray an hour or so before descent. This will shrink the membranes and help the ears pop more easily. Travelers with allergy problems should take their medication at the beginning of the flight for the same reason. Decongestant tablets and sprays can be purchased without a prescription, however, they should he avoided by people with heart disease, high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, thyroid disease or excessive nervousness. People with these conditions should consult their physicians before using these medicines. Pregnant women should likewise consult their physicians first.

If your ears will not unblock

Even after landing you can continue the pressure equalizing techniques and you may find decongestants and nasal sprays to be helpful. Avoid making a habit of nasal sprays as after a few days of use, they may cause more congestion than they relieve. If your ears fail to open or if pain persists, you will need to seek the help of a physician who has experience in the care of ear disorders. He may need to release the pressure or fluid with a small incision in the ear drum.