What is airplane ear?
Airplane ear is the stress exerted on your eardrum and other middle ear tissues when the air pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure in the environment are out of balance. You may experience airplane ear at the beginning of a flight when the airplane is climbing or at the end of a flight when the airplane is descending. These fast changes in altitude cause air pressure changes and can trigger airplane ear.
Airplane ear is also called ear barotrauma, barotitis media or aerotitis media.
Usually self-care steps — such as yawning, swallowing or chewing gum — can prevent or correct the differences in air pressure and improve airplane ear symptoms. However, a severe case of airplane ear may need to be treated by a doctor.
How common is airplane ear?
Airplane ear is quite common. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of airplane ear?
The common symptoms of airplane ear are:
- Moderate discomfort or pain in your ear
- Feeling of fullness or stuffiness in your ear
- Muffled hearing or slight to moderate hearing loss
If airplane ear is severe or lasts more than a few hours, you may experience:
- Severe pain
- Pressure in your ear similar to being underwater
- Moderate to severe hearing loss
- Ringing in your ear (tinnitus)
- Spinning sensation (vertigo)
- Vomiting resulting from vertigo
- Bleeding from your ear
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.
What causes airplane ear?
Eustachian tube blockage is one of the causes of airplane ear. The eustachian tube helps to restore equilibrium during changes in pressure. For example, yawning normally opens the eustachian tube. When the tube is blocked, symptoms develop because the pressure in the ear is different than the pressure outside of your eardrum.
Altitude changes are the most common cause of this condition. One of the places many people experience airplane ear is during an airplane’s ascent or descent. The condition is sometimes referred to as airplane ear.
Other situations that might cause airplane ear include:
- Scuba diving
- Driving through mountains
What increases my risk for airplane ear?
There are many risk factors for airplane ear, such as:
- A small eustachian tube, especially in infants and toddlers
- The common cold
- Sinus infection
- Hay fever (allergic rhinitis)
- Middle ear infection (otitis media)
- Sleeping on an airplane during ascent and descent
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is airplane ear diagnosed?
Your doctor will likely be able to make a diagnosis based on questions he or she asks and an examination of your ear with a lighted instrument (otoscope). Signs of airplane ear might include a slight outward or inward bulging of your eardrum. If your condition is more severe, your doctor may see a tear in the eardrum or a pooling of blood or other fluids behind your eardrum.
If you’re experiencing a spinning sensation (vertigo), there may be damage to structures of your inner ear. Your doctor may suggest a hearing test (audiometry) to determine how well you detect sounds and whether the source of hearing problems is in the inner ear.
How is airplane ear treated?
For most people, airplane ear usually heals with time. When the symptoms persist, you may need treatments to equalize pressure and relieve symptoms.
Your doctor may prescribe medications or direct you to take over-the-counter medications to control conditions that may prevent the eustachian tubes from functioning well. These drugs may include:
- Decongestant nasal sprays
- Oral decongestants
- Oral antihistamines
To ease discomfort, you may want to take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve, others), or an analgesic pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others).
With your drug treatment, your doctor will instruct you to use a self-care method called the Valsalva maneuver. To do this, you pinch your nostrils shut, close your mouth and gently force air into the back of your nose, as if you were blowing your nose. Once the medications have improved the function of the eustachian tubes, use of the Valsalva maneuver may force the tubes open.
Surgical treatment of airplane ear is rarely necessary. However, your doctor may make an incision in your eardrum (myringotomy) to equalize air pressure and drain fluids.
Severe injuries, such as a ruptured eardrum or ruptured membranes of the inner ear, usually will heal on their own. However, in rare cases, surgery may be needed to repair them.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage airplane ear?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with airplane ear:
- Yawn and swallow during ascent and descent. Yawning and swallowing activate the muscles that open your eustachian tubes. You can suck on candy or chew gum to help you swallow.
- Use the Valsalva maneuver during ascent and descent. Gently blow, as if blowing your nose, while pinching your nostrils and keeping your mouth closed. Repeat several times, especially during descent, to equalize the pressure between your ears and the airplane cabin.
- Don’t sleep during takeoffs and landings. If you’re awake during ascents and descents, you can do the necessary self-care techniques when you feel pressure on your ears.
- Reconsider travel plans. If possible, don’t fly when you have a cold, sinus infection, nasal congestion or ear infection. If you’ve recently had ear surgery, talk to your doctor about when it’s safe to travel.
- Use filtered earplugs. These earplugs slowly equalize the pressure against your eardrum during ascents and descents. You can purchase these at drugstores, airport gift shops or your local hearing clinic.
- Use an over-the-counter decongestant nasal spray. If you have nasal congestion, use a nasal decongestant about 30 minutes to an hour before takeoff and landing. Avoid overuse, however, because nasal decongestants taken over several days can increase congestion.
- Use oral decongestant pills cautiously. Oral decongestants may be helpful if taken 30 minutes to an hour before an airplane flight. However, if you have heart disease, a heart rhythm disorder or high blood pressure, or if you’ve experienced possible medication interactions, avoid taking an oral decongestant unless your doctor approves. If you’re a man older than age 50, you may experience serious side effects after taking decongestants containing pseudoephedrine (Actifed, Sudafed) such as urinary retention, especially if you have an enlarged prostate. If you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor before taking oral decongestants.
- Take allergy medication. If you have allergies, take your medication about an hour before your flight.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
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