What is “airplane ear”?

What is “airplane ear”?

Have you ever experienced muffled hearing, popping sounds and mild pain or discomfort during air travel?

If so, you’re not alone. Most, if not all, air travelers experience these symptoms, usually during descent and after landings.

Airplane ear pain occurs when the air pressure inside the middle ear is less than the outside air pressure, which causes the eardrum to be pushed inward and limits the eardrum’s ability to vibrate, resulting in muffled sound. In most cases, hearing returns to normal within 30 minutes after landing.

“While in-flight changes in air pressure rarely lead to a permanent loss of hearing, the discomfort and inconvenience of temporary hearing loss can make travelling unpleasant,” says Dr. Benjamin Gruber, who specializes in ear, nose and throat surgery at Advocate Trinity Hospital in Chicago.

However, he says, equalizing the pressure on both sides of the ear drum can make your flying experience easier on your ears. To do this, pinch your nose and gently blow out with your mouth closed – forcing air up the Eustachian tube to stabilize the pressure.

“This is quite safe if done gently,” Dr. Gruber says, adding it is almost impossible to blow out your own ear drums. “Once the pressure on both sides of the ear drum is the same, the pain resolves and the hearing returns to normal.”

Dr. Gruber says air travelers with congestion due to a cold, flu or allergy may experience more severe pain and muffled sounds for a longer duration. In rare cases, if the Eustachian tubes are sufficiently blocked by congestion and prevent the necessary equalization of pressure, airplane ear can lead to the collection of fluid or blood in the middle ear, with hearing loss that may take several weeks or longer to resolve.

If you are prone to ear discomfort during air travel, Dr. Gruber says chewing gum during landings can increase swallowing and help restore equal air pressure in the ears. If that tends not to work, he offers the following additional tips to prevent airplane ear discomfort:

  • Stay awake and yawn continuously during take-offs and landings
  • Drink plenty of fluids in-flight to stay hydrated and minimize the thickness of any congestion
  • Reduce congestion by taking a decongestant one hour before landing and again after your flight, if needed, until ears normalize.

Dr. Gruber recommends seeing an ENT physician as soon as possible if you experience ear pain that lingers longer than 24 hours or severe hearing loss or dizziness following a plane flight. Anyone with any hearing loss that doesn’t resolve within a week should see an ENT physician.

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Comments

3 Comments

  1. Barbara Truelsen November 20, 2018 at 2:07 pm · Reply

    For years, I have been using “EarPlanes” in my ears before takeoff and landing. They are very effective at equalizing pressure. They work by regulating the rate at which air moves into and out of the outer ear, giving your inner ear time to compensate for changes in pressure that cause the ear blocking and pain.
    EarPlanes are great for driving through mountains as well.

  2. Bernie Hossfeld RN November 20, 2018 at 2:24 pm · Reply

    There is a product on the market called EarPlanes..They are earplugs that slow the shift in air pressure by means of a ceramic inner filter. They’re inexpensive and can be purchased on line or in local pharmacies.
    I have used them several times and they worked great 👍better than any of the “traditional” fixes and without drugs.
    They come in child and adult sizes. I’m a health professional and would highly recommend this product.
    Please reply this message was received.

  3. I 150% concur that Airplane Ears work. I took a 2 hour flight 5 years ago that caused me two years of ear problems, hearing loss, smell phantom odors, and my balance was off. I went to 3 ENT doctors who wasted my time and money. They gave me all kinds of tests, MRIs, ear drops, sinus medications which didn’t work. Thankfully my body eventually healed itself, however it’s weird but I still have occasional phantom smelling issues. I’m just glad I can safely fly again and I will never ever EVER fly again unless I have the Airplane Earplugs in my ear.

About the Author

Cassie Richardson
Cassie Richardson

Cassie Richardson, health enews contributor, is manager of public affairs and marketing at Advocate Trinity Hospital in Chicago. She has more than 10 years of experience in health care communications, marketing, media and public relations. Cassie is a fan of musical theatre and movies. When she’s not spreading the word about health and wellness advancements, she enjoys writing fiction.