Ears & Air Travel

Many of us find ourselves taking to the skies over the Christmas period ideally to an exotic location, however, more often simply to beat the heat. Air travel can often be a problem for our ears – especially for those who have difficulties equalising air pressure during ascent or descent.

In a well-working ear, the pressure inside the ear should be the same as the outside, so the eardrum works efficiently. For those who have problems equalising, the pressure difference across the eardrum causes severe pain. Usually, most difficulties are when we descend. Of course, as we go up, the air pressure reduces (thus “thin air”), for which the ear adjusts. However, on the way down, the air pressure increases and if the ear does not adjust, significant stress is placed on the eardrum, causing pain, hearing loss, and in severe cases damage to the eardrum.

There are a number of ways to minimise risk to the ears. The best, and most effective, is to gently pop the ears by holding your nose, closing your mouth and blowing air up into the ears, while not letting any air out of the nose or mouth. This should be done early and often – as soon as you feel any change in pressure in your ears, pop them. For some of us this may mean every minute or so. But better many easy air exchanges than few very hard ones.

Other ways to manage difficulties equalising are pressure regulating ear plugs, that are put in the ears before the plane descends, and left in place until after landing. This slows the pressure change in the ear canals, making equalisation easier. Nasal sprays may also help, and chewing a lolly is a good option, as it moves the jaw muscles and encourages swallowing, which helps open air to behind the eardrum. And a good yawn does the same thing.

Don’t forget little travelers too. For youngsters, a lolly or drink helps the ears (and the kids!) behave, and for infants, a bottle encourages swallowing and ear equalisation.

Often a crying baby is a sign of unequalised ears, so keep a bottle or dummy handy.

If you have ear problems, tests can tell us how to best manage them. For expert audiological advice be sure you are seeing an audiologist.