The rapid change in altitude often experienced during air travel is accompanied by quick air pressure changes; this causes ear pain in many passengers, which results in a condition commonly referred to as "airplane ear." This condition, also known as ear barotrauma, is essentially the impact of air pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure in the environment being out of balance, causing stress on your eardrum. While airplane ear is generally not considered dangerous, air pressure-associated ear pain is extremely uncomfortable and can persist for several days, especially if the pressure in your ears fails to equalize upon landing due to a respiratory ailment such as a common cold or severe allergies (these conditions can worsen potential blockages caused by airplane ear). Beyond ear discomfort, other symptoms of airplane ear might include hearing loss, dizziness and/or tinnitus.
Note: Those with ear infections are advised to avoid flying or reconsider travel plans, if at all possible, to avoid additional discomfort or severe pain during their time in the air.
You can employ one of several effective methods to reduce or eliminate airplane-associated ear pain both before or after it occurs.
1. Antihistamine, oral decongestant or nasal decongestant
Take an antihistamine, oral decongestant or use a nasal spray 30 to 45 minutes before your flight to alleviate any allergy or cold symptoms that will cause sinus pressure. Nasal congestion can significantly worsen the symptoms of airplane ear. Drink plenty of water with the medication to avoid dehydration.
2. Yawn or chew gum
Yawn or chew gum during the ascent and descent portion of the airplane ride to help open your eustachian tubes, which will allow your ear pressure to equalize and prevent ear pain from occurring in the first place. Hard candy is another option, as this will stimulate swallowing to equalize ear pressure.
For parents flying with young children, giving your little one a pacifier to suck on can have similar effects to help with any ear pain when flying. Older children can be encouraged to try yawning, gum or hard candy. You can also offer them juice or water to drink.
3. Valsalva maneuver
Use the Valsalva maneuver for equalizing the pressure in your ears. Close your mouth and gently pinch your nostrils closed. Push air into your nasal passages as you would when blowing your nose. You should experience a light "popping" sensation in your ears. Repeat this step as needed during the ascent and descent portion of your airplane ride. Normally, it’s not so fun to experience frequent ear popping, but in this case, it can bring great relief.
4. Pain-relieving medication
Take a pain-relieving medication to dull any pain that occurs. Use acetaminophen or ibuprofen, which will also alleviate accumulated pressure since these medications are anti-inflammatory and will lessen any irritation or swelling in your Eustachian tubes or sinuses.
5. Ear plugs
Wear filtered earplugs, which are commercially available ear pieces available in drugstores or at the airport. Wear them during the ascent and descent portion of your flight to gradually equalize the pressure buildup behind your ear drums.
6. Stay hydrated
Drink plenty of water before, during and after your flight to prevent dehydration, which can cause sinus irritation and increase the chances of suffering from ear pain.
Things You Will Need
Oral or nasal decongestant medication
Ibuprofen or acetaminophen
Filtered ear plugs
Avoid traveling by airplane when suffering from a cold, ear infection, severe allergies or a sinus infection, since the inflammation associated with those conditions will likely cause ear pain.
Use decongestants only if your doctor says it is safe to do so since they can cause issues in individuals suffering from high blood pressure or heart disease.