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.
|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:
- Altitude Sickness
- Decompression Sickness
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!