It’s the most common medical complaint when flying and can result in discomfort, temporary pain and hearing loss. Here’s how to minimise the symptoms:
Aeroplane ear is a common, normal part of flying these days: that strange “popping” sensation, coupled with discomfort and sometimes pain. It’s all related to the pressure changes that occur because the air high above the surface of the earth is less dense than the air near the surface, explains Dr Davor Vidjak, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon. “As the plane ascends, the air pressure decreases and the air trapped in your middle ear causes your eardrum to push outwards. This is not only uncomfortable, but can also affect your hearing. When the plane descends, the air pressure increases and this extra pressure pushes your eardrum inwards, again causing discomfort and possible pain,” he says.
“Equalisation of pressure will eventually occur in the form of a ‘pop’ once the Eustachian tube – a narrow passage leading from the middle ear to the back of the throat behind the nose – opens and allows air to reach the middle ear. This happens when you swallow, yawn or chew.
“However, problems occur when the Eustachian tube is blocked due to excess mucus or inflammation as a result of a cold, fever, throat infection, etc. This means the pressure resulting from the changes in altitude can’t be equalised quickly and you may develop ear barotrauma, a condition that can damage the ear, if ignored.”
HOW TO HELP YOURSELF
Barotrauma is very common and most people experience it at some stage when flying, scuba-diving or even while driving in the mountains. Symptoms include discomfort or pain, slight hearing loss and a feeling of “fullness” in your ears.
“It’s a condition that’s usually not dangerous or severe and can be both prevented and self-treated,” says Vidjak. “There are two important preventative measures: don’t fly if you have a cold, ear infection or respiratory infection; and ensure you stay well-hydrated during the flight to help avoid irritation of your nasal passages and pharynx.”
In terms of self-treatment, there are a number of ways you can help stimulate muscles and open your Eustachian tubes and ears:
- Suck sweets.
- Chew gum.
- Use a saline nose spray.
- Don’t sleep when the plane’s descending, so you can do all of the above.
The Valsalva manoeuvre: Pinch your nostrils shut, take a mouthful of air and direct the air to the back of your nose as if trying to blow it gently, but don’t let the air out of your mouth. Your ears will be successfully unblocked when you hear that “pop”. This can be repeated several times.
Babies and toddlers: Get them to suck a bottle or dummy, as they can’t intentionally equalise the pressure. They’re also more prone to these problems because of the narrowness of their Eustachian tubes. Try to feed your child during the flight and don’t allow him to sleep during descent.
If none of these measures help and you’re prone to aeroplane ear, ask your medical practitioner to prescribe antihistamine tablets or a decongestant nasal spray, such as pseudoephedrine, but don’t use it for more than five consecutive days. Also avoid using it if you suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythm, thyroid disease, excessive nervousness or are pregnant.