The reason many frequent fliers often come to see air travel as a chore are the host of minor inconveniences that must be endured in order to get from A to B. Poor food; low quality air; cramped conditions, and surly flight attendants. These little gripes all make air travel a challenge, but for most people these are problems that can be overcome.
For some people, though, flying can be a painful experience. We all suffer from that uncomfortable feeling in our ears as a plane gains and loses altitude, but while most of us can shake it off in a few moments some passengers struggle, suffering from continuous pain throughout the flight. On rare occasions some passengers even suffer extremely painful burst ear drums.
So, what exactly causes the pain and discomfort we experience when flying? More importantly, how can we relieve the pain?
1. What causes ear pain when flying?
To understand what’s going on in your head when a plane gains and loses altitude it’s important to understand how airplanes are pressurized.
You’ll be aware, I assume, that commercial aircraft maintain a much higher air pressure than the air outside the craft, as without it it would be impossible to fly at high altitudes without killing or injuring the passengers. Aircraft need to maintain air pressure to allow the passengers to breathe comfortably.
They don’t, however, maintain air pressure at the level we experience it on the ground. At sea level the air pressure is 1013 millibars. In a perfect world we could maintain cabin pressure at 1013 throughout every flight and never suffer any ill effects, but unfortunately this isn’t possible. At 30,000+ feet, the altitude most commercial airliners reach, the pressure difference between the cabin and the air outside would place a great strain on the skin of the aircraft, increasing the risk of a breach which would cause catastrophic depressurization.
On the other hand, if the cabin pressure was too low – say, at the level we find at around 10,000 feet – some passengers would begin to feel the effects of altitude sickness, which can cause such severe and life threatening symptoms as cerebral edema (water on the brain), coma and death.
Clearly a compromise is needed between the comfort of the passengers and the safety of the airplane. Most commercial flights, then, maintain air pressure at around 750 to 800 millibars, the air pressure found at 7,000 to 8,000 feet.
As the plane climbs after takeoff the air pressure in the cabin gradually drops to around 750 millibars. The air pressure in your inner and middle ear, however, remains at that of ground level.
Image from http://en.wikipedia.org
When your ears are working as they should this pressure should be relieved quite quickly through your eustachian tubes. The eustachian tube is a channel of cartilage and bone that runs from your middle ear to your nose and throat, and it contracts and expands to stabilize air pressure in your ear.
During the sudden pressure changes of takeoff and landing, however, the eustachian tubes often can’t relieve pressure quickly enough to equalize your ear, and you may feel anything from mild discomfort to excrutiating pain until it is able to complete the job.
Watch The Video Below To Learn How To Prevent The Pain In Your Ear When Flying
2. How can I prevent ear pain?
There are several techniques that can help prevent or reduce the pain caused by this sudden pressure change.
- Suck on a sweet
The eustachian tubes open when we chew and swallow, allowing air to flow more freely. As the plane takes off or comes in to land it can be a good idea to suck on a sweet or take a drink to help open the tubes. This can help equalize the pressure more quickly, reducing the discomfort of sudden pressure changes.
As an aside, you may notice while flying that babies can become extremely agitated on takeoff and landing. The reason for this is that they feel the pain of the pressure change but don’t know how to stop it. If you’re traveling with a small child you should try to get them to drink during takeoff and landing, as regular swallowing should reduce the pain and help them calm down.
If you don’t have a sweet or drink handy you can try yawning. This also opens the eustachian tubes, and a good yawn can equalize the pressure almost immediately to ease the pain in your ear when flying.
- Use Flight Ear Plugs
These Ear plugs Reduces pressure in ears during flight. They are very cheap and you can find them at the airport before going on to your flight. You can also get them at your local pharmacy or even online from amazon for under $10. I recommend that you use these plugs when you are about to take off and about 20 minutes prior to landing as that’s when the airplane starts to descend and there will be a build up of pressure in your ear.
- Try the Valsalva Maneuver
If worst comes to worst and you simply can’t release the pressure you may want to try the Valsalva maneuver. Pinch your nose closed, take a deep breath through your mouth and, with your eyes closed, very slowly try to build up pressure in your nose as if you were trying to gently blow it. This should force the eustachian tubes open, relieving pressure in your ear.
This maneuver should only be used as a last resort, as there is a slight risk of damage to the ear drum.
- Don’t fly with a cold
Finally, one of the easiest ways to prevent ear pain during a flight is to treat any symptoms of illness before boarding the plane. Excess mucus is a major cause of pain during a flight, so if you’re suffering from anything from a cold to infection to hayfever you should attempt to reduce your symptoms before the plane takes off.
Decongestant nasal sprays containing xylometazoline can be found for sale in most airports, and they can be effective for drying up mucus before you fly. Antihistamines can also be useful, especially if you’re suffering from an allergic reaction such as hayfever.
In closing, while the question ‘Why do my ears hurt when flying?‘ can be easily answered there are many ways to reduce or prevent the pain caused by changes in air pressure. As long as you remember these tips you should be able to take your next flight with little or no discomfort.