"Ouch, my ears hurt." It's a common complaint we hear from kids travelling by air. Usually infants and very young children are those who suffer from ear pain during air travel, but older kids and adults can experience it too.
The ear-popping sensation we feel when we fly is a common, normal part of airplane travel and is usually nothing more than an annoyance. Flying causes a form of "ear barotrauma," a condition that causes ear discomfort due to pressure changes, says Dr. Rachel Klein, a doctor of internal medicine and pediatrics with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. In each ear, the Eustachian tube — a narrow passage that connects the middle ear to your throat and nose — helps regulate ear pressure.
The ear pain felt is the difference in pressure between the airplane cabin and the pressure behind the eardrum, which has yet to equilibrate, says Klein. This is why it is painful during ascent and descent because there is a changing atmospheric pressure. "Once you reach cruising altitude you should be able to equilibrate and your ears should not hurt any longer," she says.
Dr. Klein suggests these five tips for easing ear pain.
1. Yawn and swallow often.
Yawning and swallowing can help equilibrate the pressure behind your eardrum to minimize pain. Chewing gum or sucking on candy can help too. When our ears "pop," the Eustachian tube is adjusting the air pressure in the middle ear.
2. Nurse during takeoff and landing.
Mothers should nurse during takeoff and landing, or feed their baby a bottle. In children, the Eustachian tube is smaller, which is why regulating pressure may take longer or be more painful.
3. Take medication.
For adults, taking pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) 30 minutes prior to the flight to decrease obstruction around the Eustachian tube can help minimize pain. Nasal spray can help too. Talk to your doctor before taking any medications for flying or if you have other health issues such as high blood pressure.
4. Use ear plugs.
Commercially sold ear plugs — that have been designed to slow down pressure change when flying — may help ease pain.
5. Avoid flying with a cold.
Flying with a cold will magnify the pain associated with changing pressure. If you must fly while under the weather, try pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) or nasal spray prior to your flight to minimize this risk.
"If you fly with a cold, it can make ear pain worse or last longer," says Dr. Klein. "The main risk is eardrum rupture, which usually heals on its own and, if it does occur, will result in significant relief of pain since it will automatically equilibrate the pressures because the barrier has been ruptured."
Contact your doctor if you are concerned that your eardrum may have ruptured during flight.
For the media: To talk with Dr. Klein about how to avoid ear pain while flying, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.