Flying with clogged ears can cause extreme pain or even internal ear damage. The combination of pressure changes aboard an aircraft and blocked ears make you more likely to suffer from ear barotrauma, or "airplane ear." In a worst-case scenario, your eardrums may rupture. When possible, it is a good idea to postpone air travel if you are dealing with ear blockage. If you have no choice but to fly, you can take a few steps before and during your flight to minimize your discomfort.
Understanding Barotrauma Causes
Ear barotrauma is the medical term for problems caused by changes in pressure between your outer and inner ear. As a plane ascends or descends, the air pressure within the cabin changes. When your ears are blocked, such as when you are flying with a cold or a sinus infection, the pressure in your inner ear may not alter at the same time, and you are likely to experience discomfort.
Monitoring the Symptoms
Discomfort and pain in one or both ears is perhaps the most obvious symptom of ear barotrauma caused by blocked ears, but it can be accompanied by a degree of hearing loss, dizziness and a feeling of fullness within your ear. Symptoms can become more severe when the barotrauma lasts for several hours. You might experience severe pain or hearing loss, bleeding from your ears or a spinning sensation that can lead to vomiting.
Self-Treating During Flights
The vast majority of cases of ear barotrauma are easily treatable. During the flight, pinch your nostrils closed and gently exhale with your mouth closed, which may help equalize the pressure between your inner and outer ears. Pinch and exhale gently, as blowing too hard could push bacteria into your inner ear or even burst your eardrum. Yawning, chewing gum or sucking on a piece of candy can also help. Try to stay awake during takeoff and landing, as you are less likely to have prolonged problems if you can self-treat right away. Keep yourself hydrated during the flight by drinking plenty of water to counteract the effect of the dry airplane air; avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol. When you are traveling with children, give them a drink or a piece of candy during both ascent and descent.
Prevention Options to Consider
If you often experience blocked ears and the associated ear barotrauma when flying, you could consider taking a decongestant about an hour before your flight to keep the tubes in your inner ear open. Both oral decongestants and nasal sprays can do the trick, but be aware of the side effects. Nasal sprays used over several days can actually make congestion worse, and oral decongestants can cause problems if you have heart disease or high blood pressure. As an alternative to medicine, filtered earplugs can help control pressure during the flight. If your ears won't pop after a flight,, see a doctor, who might suggest an antihistamine or steroids. Long-term complications, which can include permanent hearing loss or chronic tinnitus, are rare but should not be discounted.