Your Ears and Altitude
You’re cruising at 39,000 feet, seat reclined, in-flight movie rolling along, when the pilot announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re beginning our descent. Please put your seats and tray tables in the upright position, and prepare for landing.”
Soon your ears are feeling full, you can’t hear, and the flight can’t end soon enough.
What’s going on? You’re experiencing the common effects of altitude-related air-pressure changes in the middle ear, which can cause clicking and popping, ear pain or blockage, general discomfort, and even temporary hearing loss.
The good news? A few simple steps can go a long way toward preventing or limiting the problem.
Normally the eustachian tube, a narrow passageway from the ear to the back of the nose, helps keep pressure in the ear relatively equal. When external pressure changes quickly, however — like in air travel — your body might need a little extra help to get the ears back on track and help you feel like yourself again.
What Can You Do?
- Try special earplugs specifically made for flying. These plugs are made to restrict airflow and stabilize pressure buildup in your eardrums.
- You may need to postpone air travel if you’re especially congested or experiencing intense allergies. Doing so could reduce the risk of severe discomfort or permanent damage to your eardrums and middle-ear systems.
- Consider taking a decongestant pill or using nonprescription nasal spray as needed about an hour before descent to help ease ear popping. First check with your doctor to ensure it’s safe for you to take one of these medications.
- Yawn, swallow, chew gum, or suck on your favorite hard candy before the plane’s ascent and descent. This helps the eustachian tube equalize air pressure inside the ear.
- Hold your nose, close your mouth, and softly blow without exhaling air, helping ease pressure within the ear — as long as you don’t have a sinus infection.
- If your ears don’t return to normal after a few days, it’s time to seek the help of an experienced professional who can examine your ears and determine the best solution.