Your Ears Under Pressure Adjusting to Sudden Altitude Changes
When you experience a sudden change in air pressure, your ears are your body’s barometer to alert you to the change. As your ears try to adjust, you notice a feeling of fullness or pressure that occurs in your Eustachian tube and middle ear chamber. Sudden air pressure changes are most commonly noticed during air travel, particularly during take-offs and landings. Often, quick relief can be found by simply swallowing, drinking liquid, chewing gum or yawning. Some people prefer to hold their nose and “pop” their ears. Others find relief by opening their mouth and wiggling their jaw.
Sometimes these easy remedies don't work and additional help is required to avoid more serious risks from sudden air pressure changes. For example, people who have congestion from allergies, colds or a sinus or ear infection may not be able to clear their ears. In these cases, exposure to sudden air pressure changes can lead to ear pain, fluid or blood behind the ear drum, and even a ruptured ear drum. According to House Clinic Otologist, M. Jennifer Derebery, M.D., "This is because the swollen Eustachian tube may not be able to equalize."
For example, people who have congestion from allergies, colds or a sinus or ear infection may not be able to clear their ears. In these cases, exposure to sudden air pressure changes can lead to ear pain, fluid or blood behind the eardrum, and even a ruptured eardrum. According to House Clinic otologist M. Jennifer Derebery, M.D., "This is because the swollen Eustachian tube may not be able to equalize the air pressure in the middle ear with the outside air pressure." She adds that some people with congestion "benefit by pretreating with pseudoephedrine and/or topical decongestant nasal sprays, like Afrin or Neosynephrine, before a flight."
Besides congestion, Dr. Derebery points out that other medical issues such as scar tissue, nasal obstruction from polyps, and adenoidal hypertrophy in small children – also can cause problems in alleviating ear pressure. In fact, "kids don't develop normal [Eustachian tube] function until puberty, so any child may have problems, even if they are normal," says Derebery. "For persistent problems, an ENT doctor may recommend making an incision in the eardrum (myringotomy) and/or insertion of pressure relieving tubes that can stay in place for months to even years."
Dr. Derebery recommends visiting an ENT physician or otologist if you experience significant pain after or during a flight, experience change in hearing after a flight or if there is discharge coming out from the ear. "If people know they usually have problems, they should get a physician's diagnosis and see if pre-emptive treatment may help."
Tips on Trips: Alleviating Ear Problems When Flying
Many people have problems with their ears when flying, especially on landing and takeoff. To make air travel more comfortable, hearing specialists suggest:
- Chew gum, suck on candy or yawn vigorously during the descent, to stimulate swallowing and equalize pressure in the middle ear.
- We swallow less when asleep, so children often wake up crying when the plane begins to descend due to the uncomfortable build-up of pressure in their ears. Parents can prevent their child’s discomfort by waking them at the start of the descent.
- Place a pacifier or bottle in an infant’s mouth during take off and landing, to encourage him or her to swallow.
If possible, avoid flying when you have an allergy attack, sinus infection or a common cold. The uncomfortable "plugged up" feeling, caused by the swelling of the mucus linings, is aggravated by dramatic changes in cabin pressure, and you may experience extreme discomfort or pain.
If you continue to experience discomfort, consult an ear specialist as you may have an ear infection.