Airplane Ear

1 What is Airplane Ear?

Airplane ear ranges from mild discomfort or severe pain in the ear experienced by airplane travelers.

The discomfort can start as a minor annoyance or create partial hearing loss during and after ascent or descent of plane.

Airplane ear is also known as barotrauma, and is caused by the pressure difference between the middle ear and the surrounding air.

Symptoms of airplane ear usually begin immediately after ascent or descent of the plane and may persist for some time.

It often resolves within 15 to 20 minutes. Equalizing the pressure is the best way to control airplane ear and make travel comfortable.

Specific treatment is needed only for severe forms of barotrauma.

2 Symptoms

The main signs and symptoms of airplane ear are:

  • Ear pain or discomfort that ranges from mild to severe
  • A stuffy or clogged feeling in the ears
  • Partial loss of hearing or muffled hearing

In some cases the symptoms may be severe, making air travel very uncomfortable and painful.

The main symptoms of this condition include:

Severe symptoms of the condition require medical attention.

If the condition persists for hours after travel, visiting a doctor is recommended.

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3 Causes

Airplane ear is caused by the pressure difference between the middle ear and surrounding air.

Functions of the eustachian tube 

Air pressure within the ear is regulated by the eustachian tube, a narrow tube that connects the middle ear with the throat.

Under normal conditions, the eustachian tube replenishes the air within the middle ear and keeps the pressure equal on both sides of the eardrum.

When there is a pressure difference, as in the ascending or descending of a plane, the air trapped within the middle ear drops to a lower pressure.

This may cause the eardrum to be stretched inside, preventing it from vibrating normally. The inward pulling of eardrum causes pain while the abnormal vibration results in muffled hearing.

Additional causes of barotrauma

Scuba diving, explosions at close range, and oxygen chambers may also result in barotrauma. Sinus infections, nasal allergies, and stuffy nose also lead to blockage of the eustachian tube.

Resolving symptoms

Swallowing and yawning helps to activate the muscles of eustachian tube that will trigger replenishment of air within the middle ear. This resolves the symptoms of airplane ear.

4 Making a Diagnosis

Making a diagnosis of Airplane Ear is done by Physical examination of the ears using an otoscope, which helps to identify the changes in the eardrum.

Bulging of the eardrum causes pain and partial hearing loss and can also be checked using an otoscope.

In severe cases of airplane ear, the eardrum tears and accumulation of blood behind the ear can occur.

Vertigo is caused by damage to the inner ear. Audiometry is suggested to detect hearing problems.

The sources of issues in the inner ear can be identified by this method.

5 Treatment

Treatment of Airplane ear is done by several methods, which include:

  • Medications and self-help control the symptoms of this condition. Nasal decongestants and oral antihistamines prevent blocks in eustachian tube that aggravate symptoms of airplane ear. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs help to reduce pain and discomfort.
  • A gentle blowing maneuver helps to unclog the ear. This is done by shutting the nostrils and inhaling through the mouth. The inhaled air is then forced back gently into the nose. It causes a slight ‘pop’ which unclogs the ear. This is usually repeated several times during descent of the plane.
  • Small silicone earplugs with special filters that help to equalize the pressure in the ear are useful to improve the symptoms of airplane ear. These plugs are particularly useful during colds for nasal congestion.
  • Chewing a gum, yawning, and swallowing activates the muscles that open the eustachian tube. Opening the tube allows the air to pass from the nose to the throat, equalizing the pressure within the middle ear.

In most cases, the symptoms resolve on their own once the pressure is equalized.

Surgery is recommended only if fluid drainage is required.

6 Prevention

Some easy ways to prevent the discomfort of Airplane ear during travel are:

  • Yawning and swallowing
  • Gentle blowing maneuver
  • Avoiding travel while having sinus infections or a cold
  • Using decongestant nasal spray
  • Using allergy medications
  • Using earplug with filters
  • Avoiding sleeping during descent of the plane

7 Alternative and Homeopathic Remedies

Belladona is a homeopathic remedy recommended for controlling airplane ear. The dose is repeated when pain and discomfort persist.

Kali sulph is also suggested to cure the problems in the eustachian tube that cause airplane ear.

Merc-I-F prevents sharp shooting pain in one of the ears during descent.

8 Lifestyle and Coping

Keeping decongestants, earplugs, gum, and allergy medications during travel helps one to cope with Airplane ear on a plane ride.

9 Risks and Complications

Self-care is the best way to treat airplane ear and it very rarely causes any complications.

If the symptoms are serious, it may lead to middle and inner ear damage.

In some rare cases, airplane ear may lead to hearing loss and a chronic ringing in the ears.

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