Hearing management

Updated 13 December 2017

7 ways to prevent ear pain on your next flight

With your flight about to take off, you’re dreading the inevitable ear pain. Here’s why it happens and what you can do to prevent it.

Megan Davids, an investment analyst from Cape Town, told Health24 about her experience on a recent flight:

"I was so caught up in conversation with my friend next to me that my trusty tricks were totally forgotten, and just as the airplane was gaining altitude after taking off, the most excruciating pain started piercing my ears, escalating second by second. And just when it felt like my ears were about to rupture the air pressure in the airplane stabilised."

Rapid change in air pressure

Health24 explains barotrauma as a condition where there is inflammation of the middle ear, causing severe pain. When the air pressure in the airplane cabin changes rapidly during take-off and landing, it causes painful pressure in your ear. It hurts because your ears cannot adjust quickly enough to the change in air pressure, trapping air and fluid in the middle ear.

Under normal circumstances the air pressure in your inner ear and the air pressure outside are equal. However, when external pressure changes very quickly, the inner ear experiences extreme pressure because it cannot adjust at the same speed. Apart from causing severe pain, the air and fluid trapped inside the middle ear can occasionally cause the middle ear to rupture.

The reason why you don’t get ear pain when ascending a mountain on a hike is because the air pressure changes gradually, giving the inner ear pressure enough time to adjust. 

Prevention is better than cure

Ear pain caused by air pressure is excruciating, and has been known to make grown men cry. It also doesn’t discriminate – even first class passengers are reduced to tears. 

This is why it is best to take one or more of the following preventive measures: 

1. Swallow, chew or yawn

When you swallow, chew or yawn it stimulates the muscles that open your Eustachian tubes, which can alleviate the pressure in the inner ear.

2. Valsalva manoeuvre

According to Health24, the technique known as the valsalva manoeuvre commonly practiced by deep sea divers, will help unblock your ears when pressure starts to build up. 

Pinch your nose closed, close your mouth and slowly do the same as when you're blowing your nose. Repeat until the pressure equalises.  

3. Earplugs

Making sure you have earplugs is helpful. suggests you use filtered earplugs as this will help stagger the external air pressure and reduce discomfort.

4. Wake up in time

If you’ve taken the precautions and had a great take off with no pain, don’t wake up too late to prepare for landing. Ask a flight attendant to wake you up in time to prepare your ears for landing.

5. Choose when to travel

When planning your trip, consider your health. If you are suffering from a sinus infection, cold or nasal congestion, change your flight dates if you can. These conditions can be exacerbated when flying.

6. Decongestant 

If you have nasal congestion, take a decongestant 30 minutes before tak-eoff.

7. Allergy medication

Take your allergy medication as a precaution one hour before your flight.

Read more:

What are the possible causes of foul-smelling ears?

Shocking things people do to remedy ear infections

When to take earache to the doctor


Ask the Expert

Hearing Expert

Minette Lister graduated with a Bachelor of Communication Pathology (Audiology) from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville in 2015. Thereafter, she completed her compulsory year of community service at Phoenix Assessment and Therapy Centre in Durban. In 2017, Minette started working for Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. She is passionate about working with children and adults to diagnose and manage hearing loss using state of the art technology. Minette offers hearing screening programmes for newborn and high-risk babies, as well as school-aged children, in order to decrease the incidence of late or unidentified hearing loss.

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