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.
About the Author
Cassie Richardson, health enews contributor, is regional coordinator on Advocate Aurora Health's Public Affairs team. She has more than 10 years of experience in health care communications, marketing, media and public relations. Cassie is a fan of musical theater and movies. When she’s not spreading the word about health and wellness advancements, she enjoys writing fiction.