Airplane ear is the stress that occurs on the eardrum when it experiences a pressure imbalance in the middle ear and the environment. It’s also known as ear barotrauma, barotitis media, and aerotitis media. It also occurs when there’s a difference in water pressure. Airplane ear can also occur when you enter an elevator, go diving, or are in an airplane. It can clear by itself or with some self-care.
Airplane ear is caused by an imbalance of air/water pressure which prevents your eardrum from vibrating normally. The ears contain eustachian tubes which help regulate the pressure equilibrium in your middle ear to enable you to process sound—the tubes direct air to the eardrums. A sudden change in pressure means that the eustachian tubes can’t regulate instantaneously.
The most common cause of ear barotrauma includes flying, swimming, or diving. It also happens when you have a cold or allergies that have congestion symptoms. Congestion can lead to a pressure imbalance in the middle ear which is also difficult to regulate. War zones, explosions, or being in an oxygen chamber can cause ear barotrauma.
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This condition can happen in both or one ear. Common symptoms include:
In severe cases, it can lead to extreme pain and bleeding in the ear. Fluid leaking from the ear could be a sign of a ruptured eardrum. You should see a doctor immediately if this happens. You should also seek medical attention if the airplane ear doesn’t clear within a few days or if hearing loss lasts longer than a week.
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Complications that can arise from airplane ear
Ear barotrauma is a mild condition that resolves itself once the eustachian tubes manage to regulate the pressure balance. However, sometimes it can lead to severe symptoms. If nausea, leaking, tinnitus, bleeding, or vertigo occur, you should see a doctor. If there is physical damage to the eardrums, it can lead to hearing loss and chronic tinnitus.
What increases the risk of airplane ear?
Some people are more predisposed to ear barotrauma because of the size of the eustachian tube, such as toddlers and babies with small ears. Having a cold, sinusitis, or allergies also affects the pressure balance in the middle air because of the congestion within the nasal cavity. A middle ear infection also increases the risk of airplane ear. Finally, sleeping during a plane’s take-off and landing can increase the risk because you aren’t yawning or swallowing, which helps improve the pressure balance.
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Before going on a flight, you can take a decongestant to reduce the chance of airplane ear. Swallow and yawn during landing and take-off to keep the eustachian tubes open. The wider and more open the tubes are, the easier it is to maintain pressure.
When travelling with young children, please encourage them to take plenty of fluid during landing and take-off. This helps them keep swallowing and makes sure the eustachian tubes remain open. Chewing gum also helps reduce the chance of airplane ear.
You can also try blowing your nose gently into a tissue to balance the pressure. Sometimes when you feel a blockage in your ear, shutting your nostrils and then trying to blow out can make it feel like it helps your ear. You need to do it gently while keeping both your nose and mouth closed. This is known as the Valsava manoeuvre. It gets more air into your middle ear. If it doesn’t work, wait a few minutes before trying it again.
You may also consider postponing your flight if you have a cold, nasal congestion, or a sinus or ear infection. Nasal sprays can ease congestion during landing and take-off. However, overusing nasal sprays can increase congestion. Oral decongestants about half an hour before a flight can also help. People with heart arrhythmia and children shouldn’t use oral decongestants. Consult your doctor before planning a trip if you’ve recently had ear surgery.
Filtered earplugs can also help stabilize the pressure in your middle ear. But yawning and swallowing will still be necessary. Severe airplane ear can be prevented by surgically placing tubes in the eardrums to drain fluid, increase airflow to the eustachian tubes, and equalize pressure.
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