If you’ve ever traveled by airplane, no doubt you have experienced ear popping pressure in your ears — or maybe even pain. This annoying condition is caused by the rapid pressure changes in the cabin as you ascend and descend.
Normally, the pressure in the middle ear is equal to the pressure outside of the ear. The Eustachian Tube, a hollow structure of bone and cartilage that connects the middle ear with the rear of the throat, helps to regulate the pressure in the middle ear and equalize air pressure on either side of the eardrum by pulling air in from the nasal passages or allowing air to vent.
Yawning or swallowing activates the muscles around the Eustachian tube, allowing it to open. During take-offs and landings however, the atmospheric pressure change in the airplane is too rapid for normal functioning and this can cause discomfort.
What can you do? Yawn frequently or chew gum. Chewing gum increases your saliva production, which increases your swallowing.
For younger children, chewing gum, sucking on hard candy or drinking can help. Infants can breastfeed, bottle-feed or take a pacifier.
If you or your child has a head cold, sinus problems or allergies, you may have difficulty equalizing the air pressure due to an inflamed or mucous-laden Eustachian tube.
If you’re planning to fly and know that you’re “stuffed up,” taking a decongestant beforehand may help. Also, the Merck Manual of Medical Information (www.merckhomeedition.com) suggests “blowing hard against a closed mouth and pinched nostrils to equalize air pressure.”
One company, Cirrus Healthcare Products LLC, has come out with a product called “EarPlanes.” They were made specifically for the person with sensitive ears or the person who must fly despite a cold or allergies.
EarPlanes are made up of two elements: a hypoallergenic silicone earplug and a ceramic pressure regulator. The company claims that the pressure regulator in the EarPlanes helps to slow down the rapid pressure changes, therefore reducing the discomfort. They also make a version for children. (Visit www.cirrushealthcare.com for more information.)
If your congestion is considerable, you might want to postpone your flight, as the discomfort can be severe and the inability to equalize pressure could cause permanent damage to your eardrums. Also, be sure to visit your doctor if you continue to have ear pain after flying.