man on plane

Do Your Ears Hurt when Flying?

Many people who don’t normally fly are taking trips for summer vacation during the next few months. For some, an trip via air translates to uncomfortable ear pain. It varies from person to person but usually is most noticeable when the plane descends to land. The pain is worse the lower the aircraft descends in elevation and can be quite acute on landing.

The pain is caused by unequal pressure that develops between the air that is trapped in the middle ear and the air outside the ear. This air space is connected to the back of the nose by a tiny channel called the Eustachian tube. The air on either side of the eardrum should be at the same pressure. As a plane descends the air pressure becomes as you get ready to hit the tarmac. This pushes the eardrum inwards which can be painful. To relieve this, the pressure inside the middle ear has to rise quickly too. Air needs to travel up the Eustachian tube into the middle ear to equalise the pressure.

The Eustachian tube is normally closed but opens from time to time when we swallow, yawn or chew. In most people, just normal swallowing and chewing quickly cause air to travel up the Eustachian tube to equalize the pressure. Many passengers choose to crew gum or suck on hard candy when taking off or coming in for a landing.

However, the Eustachian tube in some people does not open as easily and so the pressure may not be evened so quickly. Consider that some people may have a narrow Eustachian tube than normal and some have conditions — like a cold, infection or hayfever — that causes a blockage to the Eustachian tube. For those passengers, the air can’t travel up the tube quickly enough. Ideally, anyone with a cold, respiratory infection, or ear infection should not fly. However, not many people will cancel their airplane trips for this reason. but, come on, who wants to let a little cold ruin a week or two of fun at some exotic locale.

Here are some tips to alleviate possible ear pain:

  • Suck on hard candy when the plane begins to descend. Air is more likely to flow up the Eustachian tube if you swallow, yawn or chew. For babies, it is a good idea to feed them or give them a bottle upon descent to encourage them to swallow.
  • Breathing Technique Breathe in deeply and try to breathe out gently with your mouth closed while pinching your nose. This way, no air is blown out your mouth while you are gently pushing air into the Eustachian tube. If you do this you may feel your ears go ‘pop’ as air is pushed into the middle ear. This often cures the problem. Repeat this every few minutes until landing or whenever you feel any discomfort in the ear.
  • Do not sleep when the plane is descending to land. If you are extra-tired, ask the flight attendant to wake you when the plane starts to descend. Alert passengers can make sure to try techniques like the sucking or breathing ideas above, and thereby encourage air to get into the middle ear.

What if you have tried all of those tips and you still get pain in the ear while flying?

  • Antihistamine. Take the recommended dose the day before and the day of travel. This may help to limit the amount of mucus that you make. Mucus often blocks the inner ear tubes.
  • A decongestant nasal spray can dry up the mucus in the nose. Try and find one with xylometazoline, like Otrivin. Spray the nose about one hour before the expected time of descent. Spray again five minutes later. Then spray every 20 minutes until landing.
  • Air pressure regulating ear plugs. These are cheap, reusable ear plugs, such as EarPlanes, that are often sold at airports and in many pharmacies. These ear plugs slow the rate of air pressure change on the eardrum. Basically, you put them in before the door of the aircraft is shut. Some people then wear them for the entire flight. Some people take them out when the plane reaches cruising height, and then place them in again just before the plane starts to descend to land.

If the all of these measures fail, rest assured that the pain normally goes away quickly. If not, you can take over-the-counter pain medicine. Fluid sometimes accumulates in the middle ear for a few days after the flight, which may make hearing rather dull for a while. But if it doesn’t soon subside, please see one of our doctors to get treatment.

young child with earache

5 Facts about Ear Tube Surgery and Ear Infections

If you have young children it’s likely you’re very familiar with earaches. Statistics reveal that 75 percent of children will have at least one ear infection before they are three years old. Many children seem prone to earaches every few months.

As a parent, earaches can be frustrating for you and painful for your child. You may wonder why they get earaches and adults rarely do. The answer is simple: your immune system is much more robust than a child’s and that means ear infections are simply a part of growing up. That’s one fact about ear infections or otis media, which is the technical term for an ear infection.

The Ear, Nose and Throat Center regularly treats ear infection and earache in our Salt Lake City, Park City and Draper offices. To help you understand earaches, we’ve written 5 Facts about Ear Tube Surgery and Ear Infections.

Fact #1: Ear Infections Exhibit Common Symptoms

One of the difficulties parent’s face with ear infections is that they often strike young children who can’t yet communicate with words. In other words, they can’t always tell you that their ear hurts.

But even pre-verbal children will often demonstrate the following earache and ear infection symptoms:

• Fever
• Pulling or rubbing the ears because of ear pain
• Fussiness or irritability
• Fluid leaking from the ear
• Changes in sleeping habits or appetite
• Trouble hearing
• Turning up the TV/radio volume or inattentiveness

Watch for these symptoms and if you think your child has an ear infection, contact the Ear, Nose and Throat center for an appointment with one of our board-certified doctors. We’ll quickly diagnose the situation and create a treatment plan.

Fact #2: Ear Tube Surgery is Not First Choice to Treat Ear Infections

There are two types of ear infections: bacterial and viral. Bacterial ear infections may be effectively treated using antibiotics. Viral ear infections, on the other hand, do not respond to antibiotics and must simply run their course, much like a common cold.

A recent article in New Parent Magazine offers some useful guidance on what to do if your child gets an ear infection.

The Ear, Nose and Throat Center only recommends ear tube surgery when a child has suffered from multiple, recurring ear infections and/or speech development is delayed or the child exhibits hearing loss.

Read: ENT Doctor Answers 5 Questions about Ear Tube Surgery

Fact #3: Ear Tube Surgery is Common for Chronic Ear Infections

While the mere mention of surgery can strike fear into the heart of most parents, rest assured that ear tube surgery is common. In fact, approximately 2 million ear tubes are placed in young patient’s ears each year.

Fact #4: Ear Tubes are Used to Equalize Pressure in Eardrums and Minimize Future Infections

The goal of ear tube surgery is to remove fluids and equalize pressure within the eardrum. During the ear tube surgery, the doctor will make a tiny incision in the eardrum and will remove any fluid from the ear. This incision is in the inner ear and will never be visible.

At this point, the doctor inserts a small plastic tube into the eardrum and will place tiny ventilating tubes that will remain in place for a few months to several years. Ear tubes eventually naturally emerge from the eardrum and are either removed by a doctor during a routine checkup or, in some cases, ear tubes will fall out on their own.

Fact #5: Ear Tubes Help Prevent Ear Infections

There are many benefits of ear tube surgery. Most important, they help young children feel better and that’s a huge relief to worried parents. Ultimately, ear tubes:

• Allow air to enter the middle ear
• Enable fluid to drain from the middle ear into the ear canal
• Help restore hearing by clearing fluid from the middle ear
• Prevent fluid from accumulating in the ears while ear tubes are present
• Reduce pressure in ears which, in turn reduces the pain a child feels

See an ENT Doctor to Learn More about Ear Tube Surgery

We see plenty of earaches in Utah and we agree that ear infections are no fun. But with a variety of treatment options, we’re confident we can help improve your child’s health. Give us a call at 801-328-2522 and an ENT doctor in Salt Lake City or Draper will work with you to diagnose and treat your child’s earache.

Learn more: Learn what you can expect with ear tube surgery

Read: ENT Doctor Answers 5 Questions about Ear Tube Surgery and Otis Media