Why do I get pain in the ears when flying?
After the pain of booking flights, airport parking and long check-in queues, many travellers experience another kind of pain – an ear pain upon take-off or landing. This pain is called aeroplane ear, ear barotrauma, barotitis media or aerotitis media – referring to the involvement of the middle ear.
The sensation is often described as ranging from an increasing pressure or fullness to a sharp piercing pain. It occurs when there is a significant pressure difference between the middle ear and the outside environment. It is most commonly felt during times of rapid pressure change (usually when the plane is taking off or landing), but can also cause discomfort during more gradual ascents or descents (such as when driving up or down a mountain).
There are many ways to help with the discomfort experiences during flights, some of which you may do without even realising it! These include:
- Swallowing, yawning, chewing gum or sucking on sweets are effective in opening the Eustachian tubes into the middle ear and provide quick relief.
- Equalising the pressure by gently blowing through your nose while keeping your mouth and nostrils closed – this is called the Valsalva manoeuvre and is often used by divers!
- Special earplugs that slowly equalise the pressure can help – your audiologist can advise exactly which style and size would be best for you.
- Some medicines can help reduce pain while flying. Decongestants work by decreasing inflammation in the sinuses and can be taken either as a nasal spray or oral tablets. However, they should not be used frequently or if you have other medical conditions. Speak with your doctor or audiologist about your best options.
- Surgical options, such as the placement of grommets, can benefit frequent flyers with severe ear pain. It is best to speak with your audiologist to make sure you have explored all your available options.
Ear pain while flying can be worsened if you have a cold, congestion, ear or sinus infection. If possible, try to avoid flying if you are unwell and try to stay awake during ascents or descents. Some people find their allergies can be triggered on flights due to being in a small space with many other people. In these cases, anti-allergy medicines can be taken prior to the flight to keep any reactions at bay, reducing ear pain from inflamed sinuses.
If you have any questions about flying with hearing aids or relieving ear pain while travelling, be sure to speak with your independent audiologist.
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