“Airplane Ear” is a phenomenon that occurs when there’s a disruption between the pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure around you. It commonly occurs in airplane passengers during takeoff and landing, when there’s a significant change in air pressure. If you’re preparing for an upcoming flight, there are a few things you should know about "airplane ear" and what you can do about it.
1. Treat congestion before your trip
If you’re congested from allergies or an upper respiratory infection, it’s important to do what you can to resolve the congestion before you fly. Common treatments for congestion include antihistamines, decongestants, and nasal steroid sprays.
If the congestion doesn’t resolve before your flight, the change in air pressure can cause the excess mucus to travel up to the middle ear through a small passage called the eustachian tube, increasing the pressure in the middle ear and causing ear pressure or pain.
2. Seek medical attention for bacterial infections before you travel
In some cases, over-the-counter medications aren’t enough to resolve the problem. If you’re experiencing symptoms of a bacterial infection -- including an ear infection or a bacterial sinus infection -- it’s important to seek medical attention before your flight to see if antibiotics are warranted. A good summer travel tip is to familiarize yourself with the nearest hospital.
If you don’t address a sinus infection before your flight, you can experience significant sinus pain during takeoff and landing. And untreated ear infections can cause the tympanic membrane (ear drum) to rupture (or, burst).
Since antibiotics can take a few days to begin to resolve the infection, it’s a good idea to seek medical attention as soon as possible so the medicine has time to work before your trip.
3. Take your medication at least an hour before your flight
If you’re taking antihistamines, decongestants, or over-the-counter pain medicine like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, it’s important to take your medication at least an hour before your flight so it has time to work before your plane takes off.
4. Equalize your ear pressure on take-off and landing
One of the other steps you can take against Airplane Ear is to do eustachian tube exercises during takeoff and landing. These exercises help your middle ear pressure to equalize -- which is commonly known as getting your ears to “pop.”
Examples of eustachian tube exercises include yawning, chewing gum, sucking on hard candy or lozenges, and pinching your nose while gently blowing forward. Doing these exercises every few minutes while your plane is ascending, and descending can help you avoid excess ear pressure and pain.
5. Help your little ones’ ears, too
There’s a good reason why many babies cry on airplanes -- they’re experiencing Airplane Ear, but they can’t articulate their discomfort or perform eustachian tube exercises.
So, if you’re traveling with little ones, make sure you help their ear pressure equalize, too. Any sucking motion can help avoid Airplane Ear. Other options include breastfeeding, bottle feeding, or sucking on a pacifier or teething toy during takeoff and landing.
You can also consult your pediatrician to see if giving your child an over-the-counter pain medicine before the flight is appropriate to prevent ear discomfort or pain.
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Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant