If you’ve ever travelled by air, you’re probably familiar with the effects flying can have on your ears, from that clogged, full sensation that leaves you feeling a little muffled to, in some cases, a slight ache or pain. If you have children, who can be extra susceptible to ear pain from flying, you may think air travel can be a real pain in the ear
Changes in pressure as the plane ascends and descends by thousands of feet per minute have an affect on many parts of our bodies, but the ears, with their complicated — and tiny — network of tubes and cavities, are definitely at risk for feeling it. For some people, the unbalanced pressure simply causes that “clogged” feeling, more uncomfortable than painful, and can be fixed with simple tricks like swallowing, sucking on hard candy or chewing gum, and gentle nose-blowing. For others, the pressure is severe enough to cause an earache; the pain may increase the closer the plane gets to the ground, but it usually clears up soon after landing.
The reason that the changes in air pressure can cause a painful reaction in the ears is that they prevent the eardrum from vibrating normally, and because the Eustachian tube that connects the middle ear to the sinuses — and which is responsible for regulating pressure — is so small, it often can’t keep pace with how quickly the pressure in the cabin fluctuates.
Some people have no problem with airplane ear, and some never get more than a mild clogging. There are certain factors that can increase the risk of painful airplane ear: if you have an existing sinus condition like a cold, sinus infection, or allergies, the ear/nose network is already compromised; also, a small Eustachian tube can make you more susceptible. This is why children and infants, whose tubes are naturally smaller, are more likely to experience ear pain while on a flight.
Airplane ear usually clears up within a few minutes to hours after landing, especially with measures like blowing your nose, chewing gum, or swallowing repeatedly to force air into the Eustachian tubes, helping to clear the passages. If the pain becomes severe, begins to affect your ability to hear, lasts more than a few hours, or if you notice bleeding from the ear, consult your doctor.