While flying, some people just feel a momentary pop in their ears when the plane takes off or starts to descend. But for others, the sensation of “airplane ear” can last for a while after a flight, causing a disruption in hearing and both ear and sinus pain or discomfort.
There are all kinds of tricks out there for how to get rid of airplane ear if it seems like your ears just won’t pop (chewing gum is a trusty standby), but when it comes to your ear health, you don’t want to try just anything. Below, medical experts specializing in ear and sinus health share recommendations you can trust on how to pop your ears safely, without risking damage to the inside of your ears or eardrums. Read on before you hop on your next flight.
First off: What exactly is airplane ear?
Essentially, airplane ear feels like pressure, clogging, and/or pain inside the ear during or after a flight, and it could even result in temporary hearing loss, says audiologist Jenn Schumacher, AuD, manager of audiology communications at medical technology company GN Hearing. You may feel this sensation while flying because of the shifts in altitude, and therefore, in air pressure: The air pressure in the middle ear is different from that in the environment around you, says Dr. Schumacher.
"Airplane ear occurs when the air pressure in the middle ear is different from that in the environment around you." —Jenn Schumacher, AuD, audiologist
What’s actually happening inside your ear is Eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD), says otolaryngologist Joseph K. Han, MD, chief of the division of rhinology and endoscopic sinus and skull base surgery, and the division of allergy at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
The Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the sinuses and throat, helping regulate pressure in the middle ear and drain fluid. While it’s possible to experience long-term eustachian tube dysfunction (aka a blockage of the tubes or a failure of them to open properly) if you have chronic allergies or acid reflux, temporary Eustachian tube dysfunction can occur just as a result of changes in air pressure—as with, yes, flying or scuba diving. If you have ETD already, flying can also exacerbate the feeling of fullness and clogging in your ears, adds Dr. Han.
While air pressure change is inevitable while flying, you can minimize the potential effects on your ears by wearing special ear plugs called Earplanes, which “work by slowing down changes in air pressure inside your ear canal,” says Dr. Schumacher. “This gives your Eustachian tubes a chance to equalize the pressure inside the ear on their own.” The result? Less discomfort and pain and less of a need for popping.
How long does airplane ear last?
In the best-case scenario, airplane ear resolves a few minutes after landing, when your ears pop and the pressure in your middle ear equalizes to that of your environment. But sometimes, the annoying symptoms of it can last for a few days afterward, or longer, particularly if you have preexisting hearing or ear issues. “For a person who already has hearing loss, their hearing can worsen until airplane ear resolves, because the eardrum is unable to vibrate correctly with the mismatched air pressure inside the middle ear,” says Dr. Schumacher.
To clarify, hearing loss is not the same thing as Eustachian tube dysfunction, but chronic hearing loss can become worse with ETD, and ETD, like you might get on a plane, can cause some hearing loss for a couple of days. “While the ‘added’ hearing loss is temporary, it can make communication much more difficult or stressful, on top of the physical discomfort you may already be experiencing from airplane ear,” says Dr. Schumacher. That said, ETD-related hearing loss should resolve itself when the rest of the symptoms resolve, says Dr. Han.
4 ways to get your ears to pop while on or after getting off a flight
1. Try a pinched-nose Valsalva maneuver
One five-second way to pop your ears involves holding your nose, sealing your lips, and attempting to push air outward, says Dr. Han. The goal of this technique, called the Valsalva maneuver, is to get your Eustachian tubes to open up and initiate a pop. Ideally, your ears will feel as if they’ve become unclogged and your hearing will get clearer after that pop.
Just note that if your ears don’t pop within a few seconds, it’s best to release your nose and stop the maneuver, says Dr. Schumacher. (Too much force or pushing with this maneuver could cause eardrum damage.)
2. Give the Toynbee maneuver a shot
If the Valsalva maneuver doesn’t get your ears to pop, you can try another similar method: the Toynbee maneuver. All you do is close your mouth, pinch your nose, and work on swallowing repeatedly, says Dr. Schumacher. The continued swallows might be the most effective way to get your ears to pop, she says.
3. Chew on something
The age-old suggestion of chewing gum during takeoff and landing can actually help you prevent or get rid of airplane ear. Dr. Schumacher recommends chewing gum, a snack, or a hard candy, or even drinking something to allow the Eustachian tubes to open up and equalize the air pressure in your middle ears.
4. Stay awake during the landing, but try yawning
Even if you plan to snooze the whole flight, set an alarm for right around the landing time so you’re awake to try a few techniques for popping your ears. After all, the landing is a key trigger of airplane ear: “The problem usually occurs more when the plane is descending, and not ascending, because of the increase in air pressure in the cabin during the descent,” explains Dr. Han. He suggests doing a few yawns (perfect if you’ve been napping) to get the Eustachian tubes to open back up and relieve any pain or clogged sensation.
What to do if you can’t get rid of airplane ear
It might be more difficult to get rid of airplane ear if you already have certain ear conditions, including Eustachian tube dysfunction. “Typically, airplane ear will linger in people who have chronic problems with one or both Eustachian tubes not opening properly, which can lead to similar symptoms as airplane ear even without flying,” says Dr. Schumacher. It’s also possible to have other ear-related issues like dizziness or vertigo with more severe cases of airplane ear, she adds.
Dr. Han notes that if the symptoms of your airplane ear persist for a week (or longer) after your flight, you should see an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor for an evaluation. Same goes if you have significant ear pain or other symptoms like dizziness, says Dr. Schumacher. An ENT doctor can assess whether some other underlying ear problem might be to blame and help you find relief. But hopefully, your airplane ear will resolve itself—or you’ll be able to get rid of it with one of the simple tricks above—before you even touch down at your destination.
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