The ear pain you experience during flight is called airplane ear. Also known as ear barotrauma, barotitis media or aerotitis media, it is the stress exerted on your eardrum and other middle ear tissues when the air pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure in the environment are out of balance.
You may experience airplane ear at the beginning of a flight when the airplane is climbing or at the end of a flight when the airplane is descending. These fast changes in altitude cause air pressure changes and can trigger airplane ear.
On your next flight, the following are tips you can apply to avoid airplane ear:
Yawn and swallow during ascent and descent
Yawning and swallowing activate the muscles that open your eustachian tubes. You can suck on candy or chew gum to help you swallow.
Use the Valsalva manoeuvre
The valsalva manoeuvre is done by gently blowing your nose, while pinching your nostrils and keeping your mouth closed. Repeat several times, especially during descent, to equalise the pressure between your ears and the airplane cabin.
Don’t sleep during take-offs and landings
If you’re awake during ascents and descents, you can do the necessary self-care techniques when you feel pressure on your ears.
Reconsider travel plans
If possible, don’t fly when you have a cold, sinus infection, nasal congestion or ear infection. If you’ve recently had ear surgery, talk to your doctor about when it’s safe to travel.
Use filtered earplugs
These earplugs slowly equalise the pressure against your eardrum during ascents and descents. You can purchase these at drugstores, airport gift shops or your local hearing clinic.
Use an over-the-counter decongestant nasal spray
If you have nasal congestion, use a nasal decongestant about 30 minutes to an hour before take-off and landing. Avoid overuse, however, because nasal decongestants taken over several days can increase congestion.
Use oral decongestant pills cautiously
Oral decongestants may be helpful if taken 30 minutes to an hour before an airplane flight. However, if you have heart disease, a heart rhythm disorder or high blood pressure, or if you’ve experienced possible medication interactions, avoid taking an oral decongestant unless your doctor approves.
If you’re a man older than age 50, you may experience serious side effects after taking decongestants containing pseudoephedrine (Actifed, Sudafed) such as urinary retention, especially if you have an enlarged prostate. If you’re pregnant as a woman, talk to your doctor before taking oral decongestants.
Take allergy medication
If you have allergies, take your medication about an hour before your flight. If you’re prone to severe ear pain and must fly often, your doctor may surgically place tubes in your eardrums to aid fluid drainage, ventilate your middle ear, and equalise the pressure between your outer ear and middle ear.
Helping children prevent airplane ear
There are additional tips that can help children avoid airplane ear:
Encourage swallowing and chewing
Give your baby a beverage during ascents and descents to encourage frequent swallowing. A pacifier may also help. Have the child sit up while drinking. Children above the age of four can try chewing gum, drinking through a straw or blowing bubbles through a straw.
Consider ear drops
Talk to your child’s doctor about prescribing your child ear drops that contain a pain reliever and numbing agent for the flight.
Decongestants aren’t recommended for young children.