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Airplane ear can be some of the most excruciating pain you will ever experience. Here's how to stop your ears from hurting on a plane.

How to stop your ears from hurting on a plane

by Jeremy B

Airplane ear can be some of the most excruciating pain you will ever experience. We’ve seen adults brought to tears because of the severe airplane ear pain. Here’s how to stop your ears from hurting on a plane.

Airplane Ear: how to avoid ear pain during flight

If you’ve ever experienced airplane ear you likely remember just how painful it can be. Indeed, the ear pain you get when you travel, also known as airplane ear, is some of the worst pain a traveler can experience. We share our stories of severe ear pain while traveling, along with some tips on how to get rid of airplane ear, how to avoid ear pain on airplanes and some airplane ear remedies.

The pain was nauseating

As the plane started its descent I looked over at my wife and smiled. We were on vacation and our outbound flight was nearly over. As we neared the 10,000-foot mark the familiar ding of the cabin bell softly reminded us to fold up our tray tables and stow our belongings. It also marked the beginning of one of the most agonizing experiences my wife has ever had while traveling and our introduction to airplane ear.

Image of a woman who's ears hurt on an airplane

I looked over again and instead of a smile, my wife was grimacing in pain. Concerned, I asked her what was wrong and she brushed my question away, wordlessly pointing to her ear. As literal tears rolled down her face she started a silent prayer, unsure what was happening to her.

For the remaining duration of the landing sequence the pain only worsened and her discomfort more visible. There was nothing to do. No one to ask. We couldn’t get up and it wouldn’t have mattered because help would have only come after we landed anyway.

As the plane touched down the pain appeared to subside. Slowly, the pain drifted away as we taxied, deplaned, and found a quiet spot in the airport. Later, she described the pain as if someone was stabbing a knife into her brain. She wasn’t joking. In fact, she thought she was having a seizure.

As we googled her symptoms we realized she’d experienced her first case of airplane ear. I could have never imagined how painful it truly was until I experienced it once myself.

It happened to me too, once, and it was horrific

image of man with ear ache

Indeed, on yet another business trip (I take a lot of them!) I was fighting a head cold and as my plane started to descend towards our airport I felt a jolt of pain rush through my head and ears. It felt exactly like a knife had been plunged into my brain.

Like my wife, I could do nothing. I turned my head toward the window of my first class seat as a tear ran down my cheek. It hurt so bad my eyes had started to water. The pain was nauseating.

Many of you have probably felt this pain too.

What is airplane ear?

According to the Mayo Clinic, “…airplane ear (ear barotrauma) is the stress on your eardrum that occurs when the air pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure in the environment are out of balance.

In practical terms, this simply means your ears hurt because the pressure in your ear is different than the pressure outside of your ear. This is why airplane ear most often occurs when descending or taking off – the time when the air pressure is going through a more dramatic change.

Airplane ear can manifest as a relatively mild experience resulting in an affiliated passenger simply needing to “pop” their ears. This is often accomplished by simply swallowing, yawning, or chewing gum. In fact, many passengers experience mild airplane ear symptoms during the takeoff and landing parts of their trip.

But, when airplane ear becomes severe it can be a debilitating experience for the afflicted.

Severe airplane ear is often a combination of events that results in an unforgettable and painful experience. Notably, passengers who may have a sinus infection, a head cold or some other nasal or ear-related illness may find themselves suffering from a case of severe airplane ear. And when this happens, the pain is very, very real.

How to avoid getting airplane ear

Avoiding airplane ear is relatively straightforward. Here are a few practical tips to avoid getting airplane ear:

  • Avoid plane travel if sick. If you are dealing with a nasal or ear illness or infection try to avoid travel if you can. Not only will your fellow passengers appreciate your not spreading germs (hey, those facemasks do work, by the way), but ear or nasal issues can trigger a case of severe airplane ear. Best to get healed first before traveling if you can.
  • Use a nasal decongestant. Always consult your doctor, but if you are congested a good nasal decongestant might help reduce the chances of severe airplane ear.
  • Skip the takeoff nap. Sleeping on a plane is hard enough, but try to avoid sleeping during the takeoff (and landing) where you are less likely to be chewing, swallowing, or yawning – all things that can minimize your chances of ear trouble in flight.
  • Chew gum, yawn, or swallow during takeoff and landing. The act of moving your mouth like you do when chewing, yawning, or swallowing helps normalize your ear pressure and can help you avoid getting airplane ear.

Airplane ear remedies: how to stop your ears from hurting on a plane

When afflicted with airplane ear there are a few simple things you can do to alleviate the pain. Here are x practical airplane ear remedies to stop your ears from hurting on a plane:

  • Use the Valsalva method to normalize your ear pressure. Pinch your nose with your hand, close your mouth, and carefully, but firmly blow without opening your mouth.
  • Chew gum, yawn or swallow, or open and close your mouth as wide as you can repeatedly. The act of moving your mouth like you do when chewing, yawning, or swallowing helps normalize your ear pressure and can ease the annoyance or pain of airplane ear.

When dealing with severe airplane ear your remedies may be limited because it’s very likely you are also suffering from some sort of ear or nasal infection or illness and frankly, it might be too late. That said, there are a few things you might try:

  • Take a pain killer. Always consult your doctor first, but an over-the-counter pain killer like Tylenol may help ease the symptoms of severe air pain.
  • Attempt common prevention strategies. Try popping your ears, chewing gum, etc to lessen symptoms.
  • Meditation. Calm your inner voice, control your breathing and get through the pain. It won’t last forever.

Final Thoughts on Ear Barotrauma

Let’s hope you are one of the lucky ones who never has to face ear barotrauma, but chances are if you are reading this article you’ve experienced it at least once. For those who’ve had to face down a case of severe airplane ear you know just how brutal and painful it can be and you (like me!) never want to feel that pain again in your life. Use the tips, suggestions, and practical advice we’ve provided to minimize your chances of getting airplane ear and deal with it better when you do. Happy traveling.

PS…we want to hear from you! What methods do you use to prevent or deal with airplane ear? Drop us a comment below!

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1 comment

Mango September 27, 2023 - 10:41 am

I always do the Valsalva method, works every time for immediate relief.


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