If you have ever flown on an airplane, you have likely experienced the very uncomfortable sensation of sinus pressure or fullness, often accompanied by ear pain. Sometimes called “airplane ear,” this pain is caused by stress exerted on your ear drum when the air pressure in your inner ear and the air pressure in the environment are out of balance.
Airplane ear occurs most frequently at the beginning or end of the flight (takeoff and landing, respectively) as this is when fast changes in altitude occur. These pressure changes are notorious for triggering airplane ear. This phenomenon is also called barotrauma, barotitis media, or aerotitis media.
Anyone who has ever felt this sensation can attest to how uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, it can be. Although ear pain and pressure are the most common complaints, sinus pressure, pain, or fullness may also be present. Some people may suffer from dizziness or slight hearing loss. In very rare cases, ear trauma can be present, but this is usually very unlikely. Hearing loss associated with barotrauma is almost always temporary and reversible.
Airplane ear can be treated after the fact, but since a myriad of easy preventative measures exist, this can often be the best way to deal with this unfortunate aspect of air travel.
Being mindful (and awake!) during takeoff and landing is the first step: if you begin to experience pain or discomfort, yawning or swallowing can be a great way to reduce pressure and improve symptoms. Chewing gum can also help alleviate pressure problems. For some individuals, nasal or oral decongestants, or antihistamines, can provide some relief.
There are also a variety of ear plugs and other devices, often sold in airports, which can also help to prevent symptoms. These are especially effective (and sometimes even necessary) if you must fly with a cold, sinus infection, or allergies.
Even if you forget to take preventative measures, the good news is that this pain or pressure will usually resolve itself within a few hours, at most. If the pain or pressure persists for more than a few days, becomes severe, or is accompanied by hearing loss, ringing, bleeding from the ear, or vertigo, it’s important to consult a doctor to ensure that your symptoms aren’t indicative of a more serious condition.
For more information on airplane ear and pressure when flying, call Marvel Clinic at 931-230-7056.