What is Airplane Ear?

In 2018, an estimated 777.9 million passengers flew on domestic U.S. flights, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Up until travel restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of people were taking the skies each and every day.

While flying is a fast and effective way to get from Point A to Point B, it can also cause some uncomfortable physical side effects. Some of the more commonly reported physical side effects of flying include:

  • Dehydration
  • Dry skin
  • Bloating
  • Muscle soreness
  • Fatigue

Alongside these commonly reported side effects, flying can also affect your ears. Today, we’re taking a closer look at airplane ear.

What is Airplane Ear?

Airplane ear is the result of changes in air pressure that happen inside an airplane. Under normal circumstances, the air pressure inside your ears is the same as the air pressure outside your ears. In some circumstances, such as flying, rapid changes in altitude causes the air pressure inside the airplane to change.

You’ve likely experienced the symptoms of this. They are most commonly felt when the aircraft is taking off or landing. You may experience:

  • Pressure in your ears
  • Feeling like your ear is blocked
  • A popping sensation
  • Pain

Airplane ear is surprisingly common. However, people will experience the effects differently. For some, it may only be mild discomfort. For others, airplane ear can be a painful experience.

What Causes Airplane Ear?

Airplane ear is caused by changes in pressure. It is your Eustachian tubes that are involved in the process. Healthline defines the Eustachian tube as “a canal that connects the middle ear to the nasopharynx, which consists of the upper throat and the back of the nasal cavity. It controls the pressure within the middle ear, making it equal with the air pressure outside the body.”

You can actually feel your Eustachian tubes in action. Try to swallow or yawn - did you feel that in your ears? That’s your Eustachian tube opening and closing. Your tubes will open and shut every time that you swallow or yawn. This is to ensure that the air pressure between your nose / throat and your ears remains the same.

In the case of an airplane taking off or landing, we can experience rapid changes in the air pressure. Until the ears have equalized the pressure, the difference in air pressure pushes on our eardrums. This causes discomfort and in some cases pain. It also affects how your ear can function, which can result in sounds becoming muffled.

How to Help Airplane Ear?

In most cases, the symptoms of airplane ear resolve themselves once you’ve disembarked from the aircraft. However, you can also take some steps to minimize the potential impact of airplane ear. These include:

  • Try to swallow or yawn if you experience pressure in your ears. This can help force your Eustachian tubes to even out the air pressure.
  • Blow your nose (gently) into a tissue
  • Chew gum, particularly during take-off and landing. This will cause your Eustachian tubes to open and close, and hopefully alleviate the symptoms.
  • Take decongestant. If you have a cold or are experiencing symptoms of congestion, take a decongestant prior to flying.
  • Wear ear plugs. This can help regulate the air pressure in your ears.

Although rare, sometimes airplane ear can cause complications. In some cases, rapid changes in air pressure can rupture your eardrum. If you experience the symptoms below after a flight, please speak to your primary healthcare practitioner as soon as possible.

  • Ringing in your ears (Tinnitus)
  • Hearing loss
  • Discharge from your ears
  • Vertigo or dizziness
  • Nausea

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