Airplanes and ear pain: this is why your ears hurt doing take-off and landing

7 May '2018 Life

Regardless of how much you paid for your seat, you’re a frequent flyer, travel first class or coach: something many air travelers have in common is ear pain. To some it’s just a slight discomfort, to others it means dealing with severe pain.

Usually, that ear pain is just an annoying but tolerable inconvenience. In rare cases the ear pain and pressure get severe and ultimately lead to hearing loss. That’s why it’s best to take precautions before, during and after the flight.

It all comes down to air pressure. Normally the air pressure inside the inner ear and the air pressure outside are essentially the same, or at least not different enough to cause any trouble. Even if you were to hike to the top of a tall mountain, the slow speed of your ascent would allow time for the pressure to equalize along the way. A problem only occurs when the change in altitude is so rapid, like it is in air travel, that the pressure inside the inner ear and the air pressure outside don’t have time to equalize.

You can compare it to a loaf of bread rising when you’re baking. When your flight takes off and the plane begins its ascent, the air pressure inside the inner ear quickly surpasses that of the pressure outside. The tympanic membrane or eardrum swells outward.

Conversely, if air pressure inside the inner ear rapidly becomes less than the air pressure outside, the tympanic membrane will be sucked inward, almost like a vacuum effect. What has happened is that the Eustachian tube has flattened and needs a bit of help from you to continue to do its job of bringing air into the inner ear.

So that is what happens to your ears when flying. Since staying home is probably the worst solution to this problem, this is what you can do before and during the flight to enlighten the pain.


Jason Derulo already told ya swalla-la-la. We’re not trying to get you drunk, but swallow as much as you can during take-off and landing. When you swallow, that clicking or popping sound you may hear is a tiny bubble of air that has moved from the back of the nose into the middle ear, via the Eustachian tube. When you fly, the trick is to ensure that the Eustachian tubes work overtime and open more frequently to accommodate the change in air pressure.

Chew gum or suck on hard candy
 Chew gum and do it like you mean it. Forget all your manners and do it with your mouth open and loudly. Let those jaws work. Don’t worry: your neighbor won’t hear it over the sound of the engines. The other, more charming, solution is sucking on hard candy. For infants, whose Eustachian tubes are much narrower than an adult’s, the change in air pressure can be even more excruciating, so a bottle or pacifier is recommended to increase swallowing, especially upon descent. Older children can suck on a lollipop, drink through a straw or blow bubbles through a straw to relieve ear pain

Valsalva maneuver
With a mouthful of air, close your mouth and pinch your nose shut. Gently force air out until ears your ears pop. If you are sick with a cold or allergies, the Valsalva maneuver is not recommended, as it could cause a severe ear infection. Instead, try a lesser known method called the Toynbee maneuver: close your mouth and nose and swallow several times until pressure equalizes.

Permanent damage

Other things you can do minimize the pain:

– Avoid sleep during ascent and descent;

– Drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated;

– Yawn;

– Use nasal spray one hour before boarding or landing. But only when you really need it because these sprays can cause more congestion.

When you’re very sick with a cold, the flu or allergies you might want to reconsider your flight. Try to change your travel plans if possible. Your illness can cause a blockage in the Eustachian tube preventing the necessary equalization of pressure. A ruptured eardrum or severe infection can occur which can cause hearing loss or permanent ear damage. So yeah, you really don’t want that to happen. And besides: your fellow travelers will appreciate one less sick traveler spreading germs.


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