Does Flying Affect My Ears?

You may have your chewing gum at the ready before every flight for when your ears start to build pressure, but have you ever wondered why that happens? Perhaps you’ve been concerned about what it means and what affect it’s having on your ears. The good news is that although in some rare cases it can have more serious effects, most of the time it’s a harmless natural reaction.

Your ear is designed to regulate and maintain pressure within and without, and most of the time, the pressure is equal. The eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the nasal cavity in the back of the throat, and it normally moderates pressure fluctuations; it can handle gradual changes in pressure, such as when you’re hiking a tall mountain, without too much noticeable difficulty. When a plane takes off, however, the air pressure changes rapidly, which is harder for your ears to keep up with.

In response to the sudden fluctuation in pressure, the eardrum expands as the plane ascends, which causes that feeling of fullness or built-up pressure. This expansion also prevents the eardrum from being able to vibrate as it normally does, which is why sounds come through muffled and unclear. As the plane descends and the pressure changes again, some people experience ear pain as the eardrum is pushed further into the inner ear than it normally sits.

You can help your ears adjust to the changes and ease discomfort with some simple tricks. Swallowing is one of the go-to methods: the clicking sound and accompanying pop occur when the motion pushes the air bubble that forms out of the middle ear and into the back of the throat, relieving some of the pressure. Regular swallowing will work, but some people find sucking on hard candy or chewing gum helps. You can also try the Valsalva maneuver. With mouth closed, pinch your nostrils shut and gently blow your nose; this pushes air into the ears, helping the tubes to re-open and start to work normally again. For people with more discomfort, taking a nasal decongestant to dry up excess mucus can be an extra preventative measure.

Most people don’t fly often enough to cause serious damage, and pilots are taught to regulate their ear pressure. There are rare cases of more lasting damage, however, so if you have lingering ear pain or difficulty hearing after a flight, consult your doctor.


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