During air travel, one problem passengers usually experience is the painful and annoying feeling of their ears being clogged. This condition is called barotrauma of the ear, barotitis media, or aerotitis media. The Journal of Laryngology & Otology has reported that clogged ears are actually the most common medical condition among air travelers. In fact, about 5 to 20 % of adults and 25 to 55 % of children experience this pain during flights.
Why This Happens
The ear is divided into three sections: the inner ear, the middle ear, and the outer ear. The middle ear houses the eardrum and is connected to the back of the nose and upper throat through the passageway called the eustachian tube. This tube aids in draining fluid from the ear and stabilizes the air pressure levels between the ears and nose.
Pain in the ears can be experienced at the beginning of the flight when the plane starts to ascend in its cruising altitude. However, most people experience clogged ears as the plane starts to descend and lower in altitude. The rapid changes in altitude result in changes in the barometric pressure, which in turn triggers barotrauma of the ear. The eustachian tube may not be able to keep up with the rapid changes in the air pressure. Clogged ears experienced during flights are the result of the difference in the air pressure between your middle ear and the air pressure in your environment.
Passengers with colds and allergies are more susceptible to barotrauma of the ear among others. Infants and children are also most likely to encounter ear problems during flights.
During the ascent or descent of the plane, passengers may experience pain or discomfort in one or both ears. They may experience a ringing in the ear or tinnitus. Stuffiness in the ear may also be encountered. Passengers may also have slight to moderate hearing loss. They may also feel dizzy or experience vertigo, which can cause them to vomit. Severe cases of barotrauma of the ear can lead to severe pain and even a ruptured eardrum.
Ways to Unclog Your Ears
Popping your ears can help open the eustachian tube and stabilize the pressure in the middle ear. Ear popping is generally safe and effective. This usually works after a few tries. Whatever technique you may use, be sure to be gentle while doing it.
Here are different ways that you can try next time you experience having clogged ears during flights:
Swallowing makes your muscles automatically work to open the eustachian tube. Chewing on a gum, for example, stimulates saliva production. Thus, it gives you more reason to swallow.
When you swallow, the eustachian tube opens, allowing a small air bubble to move from the nose and into the ear. You may notice that little click or pop in the ear when you swallow. This is due to the movement of air into the ear. Keeping a pack of gum in your carry-on is actually quite handy.
Sipping water or other beverages and sucking on hard candy are other activities that you can do to increase the need to swallow. Chewing and swallowing move the muscles in your jaw that help reopen the eustachian tube.
When traveling with a baby or small children and they complain to you about pain in their ears, you may give them a pacifier to suck on during the flight or you can give them some candies. Making them sip water or juice would also help to unclog their ears.
If you are someone who gets sleepy and yawns a lot during travels, that would be handy. It’s because yawning helps open the eustachian tube. If you can’t yawn naturally, try faking it. Open your mouth as wide as you can while you breathe in and out. Yawn or fake a yawn every few minutes until your ears pop open.
3. The Valsalva maneuver
To pop your ears, first, take a deep breath. Next, pinch nose with your fingers and close your mouth. Then, gently exhale through your closed nose while keeping your cheeks pulled in rather than puffed out. By doing this, you are forcing the air into your middle ear. Make sure not to blow too hard, because though the risk is small, there is still a chance that you might rupture your eardrums.
This is best done several times during descent because this is when most people experience clogged ears. This will help balance the pressure between your ears and the plane’s cabin.
4. The Toynbee maneuver
To do the Toynbee maneuver, pinch your nose, close your mouth, then try to swallow. Sipping on water is suggested as it will help you swallow. Some research suggests that this maneuver is actually as effective as the Valsalva maneuver. Results, however, varies from one person to another.
5. The Frenzel maneuver
Perform the Frenzel maneuver by pinching your nose closed while making a “K” sound. Repeat this until you hear your ears pop.
Taking nasal or oral decongestants 30 minutes before ascent or descent landing has been found helpful in avoiding clogging of ears. They shrink the mucus membranes, including those of the back of the nose and eustachian tubes.
A study done in 1998 in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine reported that participants who took an oral decongestant with pseudoephedrine 30 minutes before take-off were less likely to have ear symptoms compared to those who used a nasal-spray decongestant.
Oral decongestants may be helpful but some people have to be cautious as well. Those who have heart disease or high blood pressure should avoid taking oral decongestants unless approved by their doctor. Taking oral decongestants containing pseudoephedrine also has serious side effects, especially to men older than 50. They may experience urinary retention, especially if they have an enlarged prostate. Pregnant women should also consult their doctors first before taking any oral decongestant.
Antihistamines also help shrink swollen mucus membranes. That is why those with nasal congestion from allergies may also take these to prevent ear pain during flights.