Ear Clog: How to Unclog Ears After a Flight
If you're like many travelers, you often walk off a plane feeling a little worse for wear. Achy, tired, hot, desperate to use a bathroom bigger than a breadbox – add ear pain, and it's enough to make you want to swear off air travel. It's completely normal to experience pressure, temporary hearing loss or even mild ear pain after a flight. Here's the good news: The most effective remedy for "airplane ear" costs nothing and requires nothing more than your own fingers.
What Causes Airplane Ear
Understanding what causes that uncomfortable post-flight ear pressure will help you understand the best ways to fix it. The middle ear, an area that includes the eardrum, connects to the back of the throat via the Eustachian tube. Bubbles of air pass through this tiny tube when you swallow or yawn, which helps the pressure in the inner ear stay balanced with the pressure in the outside world.
When you're on an airplane that's changing elevation rapidly, the air pressure in the cabin also changes. That air pressure changes causes the Eustachian tubes to become blocked, which in turn causes the ears to feel stuffed and/or painful. This condition is commonly called either barotrauma or "airplane ear" because it so commonly happens to air travelers.
Airplane ear can happen during both takeoff and landing, and the effects can last for hours after the flight ends.
Try the Valsalva Maneuver
The name of this exercise makes it sound complicated and involved, but it's actually super simple. While pinching your nostrils shut and keeping your mouth closed, breathe out forcefully as if you were blowing your nose or blowing out birthday candles. As long as the mouth stays shut, the air you force out should "pop" your ears and force open the Eustachian tubes. You may need to repeat this maneuver several times to fully clear the blockage and make your ears pop.
Scuba divers, who commonly experience barotrauma, also sometimes rely on a variation of this maneuver by pinching their nostrils, closing their mouths and swallowing instead of blowing out. If the traditional Valsalva maneuver doesn't work, this method is worth a try.
Use a Warm Compress
Some travelers who suffer from blocked ears find relief using warm compresses. Soak a washcloth in warm water, wring it out and hold the damp cloth against your ear for about 5 minutes. If necessary, try the Valsalva method again after using compresses on both ears.
Next Time, Opt for Prevention
The best way to manage airplane ear is to avoid experiencing it at all. That's not always possible, but taking some preventative measures can definitely help. Yawning, swallowing sips of water, eating hard candy, or chewing gum during takeoff and landing may be enough to keep your Eustachian tubes open and avoid clogged ears. That's why pediatricians often recommend feeding young children during those elevation changes: It forces them to suck and swallow.
Filtered earplugs are another potential solution. They're designed to equalize pressure in your ears when worn during flight, and they're available in both children and adult sizes. Using allergy medication, nasal spray, or oral decongestant before takeoff and/or landing might also reduce the symptoms, if it's medically safe to do so.
Flying with an ear infection or sinus infection generally makes airplane ear worse because, in this state, your Eustachian tubes are already probably blocked and stuffy from nasal congestion. If rescheduling the trip isn't viable, using a decongestant just before the flight should help minimize the discomfort from clogging.