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Ears and airplanes

Luggage in an airport terminal with a plane taking off outside the window.

Ears may hurt or pop when you're traveling by plane. Simple steps can prevent or relieve the pain.

For some people, air travel and ear pain are a package deal. You can prevent or solve this problem by following some quick and easy advice.

The problem

Ear stuffiness, popping or pain while flying comes from the middle ear. This section of the ear, which includes the eardrum and ear bones, also contains a pocket of air.

When a plane takes off or lands, it travels quickly from one level of air pressure to another. These pressure changes can affect the air pressure in the middle ear.

The solution

The eustachian tube, a small tube that leads from the middle ear to the back of the nose, helps keep the pressure in the middle ear constant. Opening this tube can help return your ear pressure to normal.

The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery offers these suggestions for balancing unequal ear pressure:

  • Swallowing. You swallow more often when you chew gum or have a mint in your mouth. Either can help you avoid discomfort while flying.
  • Yawning. This action activates the muscle that opens the eustachian tube.
  • Clearing your ears. Pinch your nose closed with your fingers, close your mouth and gently blow as if you were trying to blow your fingers off your nostrils. You should hear a pop. You may have to repeat this several times.

Some people use nasal sprays or decongestants to help keep airways open during plane rides. Your doctor can give you specific recommendations on how to use these products during travel. Decongestants can be especially helpful if you have allergies.

Special cases

  • If you have a severe sinus, ear or nose infection, it may be best to postpone air travel, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • If you've recently had ear surgery, ask your surgeon when it's safe to fly.
  • When you travel with a baby, give him or her a bottle or pacifier to encourage swallowing during takeoff and initial descent (not just landing), advises the American Academy of Pediatrics.

On the ground

You can still use all these ear comfort tricks after the plane lands. If your ears remain stuffy or painful, see a doctor.

Reviewed 12/15/2022

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