When you love to travel, especially long distance, chances are that you sometimes hop on an airplane as part of your journey. Even for die-hard travel fans, flying can be difficult. But in addition to making you jetlagged, cramped, and more, sometimes those flights are just hard on the ears!
Ear pressure issues - highlighted by discomfort, popping, and even severe pain - are a common issue experienced by travelers. Usually these symptoms are just annoying. But sometimes, they can be more serious. So before you take to the skies, it's a good idea to take precautions and to prepare to care for your ears as you get from Point A to Point B.
First Thing’s First: Why Does Flying Hurt My Ears?
That’s a good question. Why do so many of us experience discomfort - sometimes referred to as airplane ear - while flying?
Blame the air pressure.
When we're at ground level, our normal state of being, the air pressure inside our inner ear is equal to the air pressure outside of it. This state of equilibrium allows us to move about and hear comfortably. Additionally, in this state, our ears have more time to naturally adjust to changes in air pressure that occur due to activities such as hiking to an elevated area.
When we’re on an airplane, however, we reach new heights much faster than we would by foot. As a result, the pressure inside the inner ear and the air pressure outside don’t have time to equalize.
So when taking off, the air pressure inside the inner ear quickly surpasses the pressure levels outside of it. This causes our inner ear and eardrum to swell and creates the discomfort we're too familiar with. Then the reverse can happen during a descent - and when the air pressure in the inner ear drops, the inner ear membranes can be stretched inward as the changing pressure creates a vacuum effect.
Whether you're taking off or landing, the changes and stretching of the inner ear and eardrum can cause minor discomfort or even pain. Worse still, severe airplane ear that isn't addressed can escalate. In these cases, people may experience a ringing in their ears, moderate to severe hearing loss, a spinning sensation known as vertigo, vomiting due to vertigo, and even bleeding from their ears.
Taking Action: Self-Care that Treats Airplane Ear
There is good news to be shared here. Airplane ear usually isn't serious and even responds very well to self-care. To maintain your comfort and avoid the worst side effects of this issue, you can do the following:
- Yawn and swallow during takeoff and landing. The movements we make while yawning and swallowing activate muscles that open up our inner ear tubes. This then helps your inner ear reach equilibrium again.
- Buy filtered earplugs. Filtered earplugs slowly equalize the pressure against your eardrum during ascents and descents. They’re a great tool and can be purchased OTC at a pharmacy - and even in some airport stores.
- Avoid travel while ill. Try not to fly when you have a cold, sinus infection, nasal congestion, or ear infection. These illnesses can create blockages in the tubes of the inner ear, which may keep you from achieving an equalization of pressure after takeoff or landing. If you must fly, use medicines such as nasal decongestants to help clear up your medical symptoms temporarily and to make the flight easier on your ears.
- Avoid sleeping. While it's tempting to nap on a flight, it's important to at least resist the urge to cat nap during takeoff and landing. This will allow you to catch any uncomfortable symptoms and address them promptly.
Still Need Help? Contact Your Ear Doctor
Even with self-care, it’s possible to experience long-term hearing effects from flying. Because of this, we advise patients to see a hearing healthcare professional if their hearing and ears don’t return to normal within several days of their last flight. Additionally, if they experience any severe symptoms (i.e. bleeding from the ears), they should visit a doctor as soon as possible!
Do you have travel plans coming up? Do you have additional questions that we didn’t answer here? Whether you need advice about your travels or you’re just due for a routine ear exam, we can help! All you have to do is contact us via phone or . We’re here and we’re ready to ensure you can hear your best for years to come.