Aeroplane Ear

Reviewed by Charge Audiologist
Ron Trounson

Table of Contents

What Causes Aeroplane Ear?

Have you experienced aeroplane ear (also called airplane ear and ear barotrauma)? Usually, it’s a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear. And it might cause moderate to severe discomfort or pain.

When your flight takes off or lands, the sudden change in altitude creates a rapid difference between the air pressure inside the inner ear and outside pressure.

This difference in air pressure causes your eardrum to bulge. Sometimes the stress of this bulging is painful, especially if you cannot equalize the pressure by opening your Eustachian tube.

It is often infants or young children who are most at risk from aeroplane ear because their Eustachian tube is narrower than adults.

Young woman suffering from aeroplane ear
Young woman suffering from aeroplane ear.

Symptoms of Aeroplane Ear

Aeroplane ear can occur in one or both ears. Mild signs and symptoms may include:

  • moderate to severe discomfort or pain in your ear
  • a feeling of fullness or pressure in your ear
  • muffled hearing or slight to moderate hearing loss

Usually, self-care steps such as yawning, swallowing or chewing gum can prevent aeroplane ear or correct the differences in air pressure and improve mild symptoms.

If aeroplane ear is severe or lasts more than a few hours, you may experience:

  • severe pain in your ear
  • pressure in your ear similar to being underwater
  • moderate to severe hearing loss
  • ringing in your ear (tinnitus)
  • dizziness or a spinning sensation (vertigo)
  • vomiting from vertigo
  • bleeding from your ear due to a ruptured eardrum

When Should You Avoid Flying?

Do you have a cold that includes an active ear infection or a blocked nose to the point where you can’t breathe through it?

These issues might be severe enough to compromise the ability of your Eustachian tube to regulate air pressure. Eustachian tube dysfunction could lead to ear pain or the ears filling with fluid or blood, and in extreme cases, your eardrum can rupture.

Be honest in your self-assessment and listen to your body. That flight might be worth delaying to avoid the risk of some quite severe and painful outcomes.

Would you please make sure you have travel insurance and check that it covers such circumstances to avoid feeling forced into making a wrong decision?

7 Things You Can Do to Avoid Aeroplane Ear

Here are some tips on how to avoid or alleviate the symptoms of aeroplane ear. 

1. Chew and Swallow

Young woman chewing gum to help prevent aeroplane ear

Anything that encourages chewing and swallowing will help you equalise the air pressure inside and outside your ears. Chewing gum or sucking on lozenges during take-off and landing are good options.

2. Valsalva Manoeuvre

Young woman performing the valsalva manoeuvre to avoid aeroplane ear

When chewing and swallowing are ineffective at equalising the pressure in your ears, you might like to try the Valsalva manoeuvre.

This manoeuvre is done by exhaling against your closed airway. You do this by closing your mouth and pinching your nose shut while gently trying to push air out of your ears.

3. Blow Your Nose

Young woman blowing her nose to alleviate aeroplane ear

Blow your nose gently before your flight and during takeoff and landing. As well as equalising your ear pressure, gently blowing your nose increases your self-awareness of how your ears, nose and sinus feel.

4. Use Nasal Spray

Young man applying nasal spray to avoid aeroplane ear

Use non-medicated saline nasal spray the day before your flight and before take-off and landing.

Using a nasal spray thins and clears excess nasal mucus, keeps nasal passages moist and washes away dust and allergens.

Please be aware you may need to apply nasal spray over a sink as it can get a little messy, especially if you have a build-up of nasal mucus. Have a practice before you are seated on the aircraft.

5. Wear Ear Plugs for Flying

Ear plugs designed for flying

Specially designed ear pugs slow down the rate of pressure change in the ear.

They are supposed to alleviate the symptoms of aeroplane ear when the cabin pressure changes rapidly during take-off and landing.

6. Avoid Sleeping During Take-Off and Landing

Child asleep on an aeroplane

Some of us can’t help but nod off during a flight. But you should avoid dozing during take-off and landing as you might not react in time to equalise your ear pressure.

7. Feed Babies and Small Children

Toddler eating on plane

Feed babies and small children during take-off and landing to encourage chewing and swallowing, equalising their ears.

Jerika Pring

Jerika Pring

I received my Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 2009 and have 10 years of nursing experience effectively and efficiently managing both patients and staff. I've had experience in Medical and Surgical Wards, Otolaryngology, Gynecology and Obstetrics, Neurology, Pediatrics, Aged Care, and worked as a certified laser technician.

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