Prepare your ears for takeoff with these helpful hints.
As more places around the globe reopen to travelers, many people are excited to see family and friends and enjoy new travel experiences again. But for the majority of those travelers, it’s been more than a year since the last time they stepped foot on an airplane — or experienced the annoying sensation of “airplane ear”.
Airplane ear can come with various symptoms like ears popping, feeling clogged/muffled, or in rare cases having worse effects. In this article, we’ll revisit how air travel affects your hearing, specifically focusing on:
- The science of how air travel affects your hearing
- Temporary mild symptoms of airplane ear
- Potential complications of airplane ear
- How to prevent airplane ear
Read on to learn how air travel affects your hearing and what you can do to stay safe on your next trip!
The science of how air travel affects your hearing
Why does air travel affect the ears? In short, it all comes down to pressure. The air pressure in your inner ear needs to be the same as the outside environment’s air pressure for your eardrum to function correctly.
Typically, your body takes care of this automatically. You have a canal connecting your throat and middle ear called the Eustachian tube, which is responsible for funneling air to the ears and controlling ear pressure. But when you experience a rapid change in altitude like you do when flying, your ear pressure doesn’t have time to equalize, and your eustachian tube needs a little extra assistance to get the right amount of air inside and regulate pressure. (We’ll cover how to do that later!)
Temporary mild symptoms of airplane ear
You’re most likely to notice ear discomfort while your plane is taking off or landing. The most common temporary mild symptoms include:
- Muffled hearing/feeling of stuffy ears
- Ears popping
- Slight temporary tinnitus (e.g., ringing/buzzing)
- General feelings of discomfort/non-extreme pain in the ear
These symptoms usually are not signs of concern, and if you can’t avoid them, you can expect them to go away shortly after landing. If the symptoms last, visit a doctor.
Potential complications of airplane ear
In rare cases, air travel can affect your hearing in worse ways, particularly if you’re flying while sick (e.g., with a cold, flu, or ear or sinus infection). Sickness matters because when you have a stuffy nose or symptom that makes it harder to breathe, your eustachian tubes can be inflamed or clogged. If you’re getting on the plane with those canals already blocked, you’ll probably have a less pleasant flight, plus more risk of complications. If you experience ongoing tinnitus, dizziness, or ear pain after air travel, consult your doctor.
Best advice: If you are feeling under the weather, strongly consider postponing and rescheduling your trip so as not to potentially infect other passengers.
How to prevent airplane ear
Anything that helps keep your Eustachian tubes open during takeoff and landing will help minimize your case of airplane ear. Chewing gum is one of the most popular ways to do this since the chewing motion helps keep the Eustachian tubes open. Swallowing also helps (which you’ll probably do more if you’re chewing gum, so win-win).
If you’ve ever yawned and felt your ears pop, you know that that’s another great way to clear them — but yawning is a lot harder to do on command, of course! Another method is to pinch your nose and close your mouth, then gently blow like you’re blowing your nose. This method is effective during ascent and descent, or to try to pop your ears (be soft, not forceful).
If you know you’re susceptible to cases of airplane ear, taking a decongestant before you fly can make it easier to keep your ears clear. Again, it’s best to avoid flying entirely while you’re sick. If you must fly, taking decongestants is vital because the eustachian tubes need extra help to get unclogged.
Keep reading the CapTel blog to stay up to date with information about caring for your hearing health at home and while on the go.