Airplane Blues: The Final Word on Ear-Popping

It’s that time of year again: time to make plans, book a flight, and take a few well-deserved days off somewhere far away from your obligations. Spring Break means travel, and more often than not, travel means flying. But for many, the discomfort of flying means opening this wonderful time of year up with a dreaded ritual– trying to pop your ears on the airplane.

Though not often a dangerous issue, rapid pressure differentials can mean hours of discomfort for anyone who plans to travel by plane. It’s such a widespread issue, in fact, that dozens of rumors surround popping your ears on planes. That’s why OHC is taking the time today to talk about some different ways to deal with ear-popping.

First off, let’s talk about what ear-popping is, and what causes it.

Ear popping, as it is commonly understood, is simply a natural defense mechanism for the structure of your inner ear. In order to prevent damage to your ear-drum (the thin membrane that receives sound) your body has a “valve” known as the Eustachian Tube, which allows pressure build-up to gradually equalize in the chamber of your inner ear. However, this system has difficulty dealing with the rapid change in pressure brought on by air travel–again, though it isn’t dangerous, this inability to equalize the pressure in your inner ear with your surroundings can cause discomfort and pain.

Fortunately, the tried-and-true advice of chewing gum or sucking on a hard candy seems to be the best way to handle this pressure change. Swallowing activates muscles that open the Eustachian tube, allowing the pressure in your inner ear to reach the same level as the ambient pressure (in this case, the low-pressure cabin of an airplane.) Likewise, yawning can help equalize pressure.

If swallowing and yawning fail to help, the next step is to use the tried-and-true method of simulating a pressure differential by pinching your nostrils shut and gently direct a mouthful of air towards the back of your nose. You should feel a pressure build-up, leading eventually to a popping sound, which means your ears have successfully unblocked.

But what about those people suffering from springtime allergies or sinus issues?

For the travelers who are currently suffering from stuffy noses or plugged-up ears, don’t worry– OHC has a number of cheap remedies to address the issue. If you are an adult, OHC recommends taking an Afrin nasal spray and an oral Sudafed both the day before and the morning of your flight. If you are pregnant, please avoid taking a Sudafed, and stick to an Afrin nasal spray only on the morning of your flight. Unfortunately, although many travelers swear by “earplanes” ear-plugs, there is no scientific research to support their use.

If you have any questions about pressure and ear-health, please don’t hesitate to contact OHC. Our doctors are experts in addressing any issues you may have!