How to Get Ear Pain Relief When Flying

Ear Pain Relief When Flying

The “popping” sensation that you feel in your ears when you take off and land in an airplane actually means that your ears are functioning the way they should be. Your ears are doing what they should be doing to maintain a balance in air pressure between your environment and the air-filled space behind the eardrum.

When your ears don’t “pop” is when you experience ear pain when flying because the pressure of the air-filled space behind the eardrum does not match the pressure of the environment. This happens during the rapid change in cabin pressure during takeoff and landing.

What exactly causes the pain in your ears?

As we mentioned above, the ear pain from flying should mostly come from the descent phase of the flight. And here’s why…

The average atmospheric pressure at sea-level (the level we live it most of the time) is 101.325 kPa or 29.92 inches (inHg) or 760 millimetres of mercury (mmHg) or 14.7 psi.

When an air plane is sitting on the runway, there is really no need to worry much about cabin pressure as it is the same as the pressure at sea level. However, as the plane begins ascent the air pressure decreases.

Take a look at the table below for the different pressures encountered while flying.

AltitudePressure (psi)
Sea Level (0 ft)14.7
Cabin Pressure at Cruising Altitude (8,000 ft)10.9
Ambient Pressure at Cruising Altitude (35,000 ft)3.45

Unfortunately the human body is physiologically unable to handle such a drastic change in pressure. Mainly for the following 4 reasons:

  1. Hypoxia
  2. Altitude Sickness
  3. Decompression Sickness
  4. Barotrauma

In order to avoid the above conditions, air is pumped into the cabin to approximate a pressure equivalent to 8,000 ft above sea level.

Your ears may pop slightly as you are ascending, but you are (for the most part) relieving pressure off your ear, so typically there isn’t a lot of discomfort at this stage.

Descending is when the problems begin.

As you begin to descend the reverse happens. Air is pumped out of the cabin in order to account for the increase of pressure, essentially creating a negative pressure.

This negative pressure is what causes pain or discomfort on your ear. As the cabin is depressurized your eustachian tube is trying to regulate the pressure in your inner ear. If it can’t, then your tympanic membrane (or ear drum) will actually be pushed or pulled and thus the pain.

You can help avoid ear pain when flying with the use of Earplanes.

Earplanes are soft silicone earplugs that you insert in your ears during takeoff and landing on a plane. They are known to help regulate the ear pressure and reduce the likelihood of pain caused by Eustachian tube dysfunction (see more below).

earplanes-ear-plugs

Earplanes are available for adults and for children.

They are not a permanent solution for Eustachian tube dysfunction, but they can be very helpful when traveling to avoid ear pain.

Note: When using Earplanes, it is very important that you have them in your ears at least 60 minutes prior to landing.

If you have bad allergies or a cold…

You’re not going to want to hear this, but if you’re allergies are flaring up or you have a cold it’s best not to fly, or prepare for some ear pain.

Why?

Because allergies or any type of upper respiratory infection can cause inflammation and additional mucus around the eustachian tubes, often time blocking them. This may lead to a build up of fluid in the middle ear, which won’t make “clearing” your ears a pleasant experience.

I personally take a couple puffs of Afrin about 15 minutes before the flight if I’m experiencing any of the above conditions, and so far that has always helped.

Note: I’m an audiologist not on otolaryngologist (more commonly an ENT), so consult your general physician or ENT before doing anything.

Eustachian Tube Dysfunction

Another reason some people experience ear pain or pressure is because their Eustachian tubes aren’t functioning normally. This is called Eustachian tube dysfunction.

The Eustachian tube opens and closes when there is a change in air pressure so that the eardrum can vibrate freely.

Children are more likely to experience Eustachian tube dysfunction, which is why they are more susceptible to ear infections. But, Eustachian tube dysfunction can persist or develop in adulthood and can cause lasting difficulty when flying.

Eustachian tube dysfunction can also come and go with allergies, sinus infections, upper respiratory infections, and colds. If you are planning to fly with one of these conditions, you are more likely to experience ear pain. It is necessary to treat and/or manage any of these conditions prior to flying to avoid ear pain.

If you travel frequently, or have had previous experiences with ear pain when flying, taking some Earplanes with you on your trip is a good idea.

Avoid ear pain and enjoy your flight!

Lindsey Banks

Audiologist

Lindsey Banks is a graduate of the Doctor of Audiology (Au.D.) program at the University of Florida. She uses her diverse experience in hearing healthcare and her passion for helping people to provide credible information to those with hearing loss who visit Everyday Hearing.

Comments

  1. Jacquelyne says:

    When I lie down, why do hear a crackling noise in my left ear?

    1. Everyday Hearing says:

      You could be experiencing Eustachian Tube Dysfunction.

  2. Swathi Krishna says:

    Blood clot has been found in my ear after two days i took flight. The pain was there while landing itself but I didn’t pay attention and let go. What shall I do. Is it problematic?

    1. Everyday Hearing says:

      You should follow up with an ENT physician to determine if treatment is necessary

  3. MRUDUL says:

    I’m having ear pain and also ear block after flight travell today. But able to hear normally.
    Is it problematic wil I be we go come out of pain and ear block

  4. Nigel says:

    Hi I have recently flown in to US from UK (1week ago) I originally flew in to Atlanta stayed for a night then flew to LAX (this is when the problem really started) then after a couple of days I was fine but since flying back into Atlanta yesterday (3 flights in 8 days is not common for me not a frequent flyer but I have a new job) major hearing issues and popping pain through the night, I have been to urgent care and he said it’s an ear infection but I fly back in 5 days he said you might be okay and gave me some antibiotics and afirin for flight back. My question is since you use afirin do you use the earnplanes too or should I buy noise cancelling headphones also are either dangerous if you have just had infection? Sorry about the length didn’t want to leave anything out. Thanks Nigel

    1. Everyday Hearing says:

      I can’t comment on the dangers of using those products with an ear infection but I personally use earplanes.

  5. Joan Owen says:

    I have used earplanes while at the same time I also used nasal decongestants, extra strength pseudoephedrine, chew gum, swallow, plug my nose and blow, and the pain is still so severe it radiates down into my neck behind my jaw. Any suggestions?

    1. Everyday Hearing says:

      If you have not already, you should follow-up with an ENT physician to determine why you are having the ear pain.

  6. norma says:

    lately ..i fear flying due to earache especially during plane descent. in my left ear- my right ear does not ache hence it has perforated eardrum.
    no amount of chewing gum nor swallowing relieves. Though pain is gone when plane lands. does “earplanes” releive this pain? is it different from the usual earplugs used for cellphone.
    thank you

    1. Everyday Hearing says:

      Earplanes are designed specifically to help reduce ear pain when flying so you may have success with them in your left ear. It is different than regular earplugs.

  7. This is a really amazing piece of writing. There are things that I come to know for the first time and I wanna to give thank you for sharing the information.

    1. Everyday Hearing says:

      Hi James, Thank you so much for your positive feedback, it’s great to hear that you enjoyed the article.

  8. Lesley says:

    I wear hearing aids both ears, always take them out and put ear plugs in 1 hour before descent. Would hearing aids have same effect as ear plugs ( earplanes ) when flying, or should I keep using ear plugs? Scared to try as have had some bad descents with ear pain.

    1. Stick with using the earplanes before descent. Depending on the earmold or dome coupling on your hearing aids, they may not have the same effect as the earplanes do at helping with pressure equalization.

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