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.
Making sure you have earplugs is helpful. HealthyHearing.com 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.
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.
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