Airplane Ear

What is Airplane Ear?

Airplane ear, which is also known as barotitis media, aerotitis media, and ear barotraumas, refers to stress that is exerted onto the eardrum and the middle ear tissues. This occurs when the air pressure within the middle ear and the air pressure of the environment are no longer in balance.

Many people experience this condition when they are on an airplane that is ascending or descending, hence the name. This is because the air pressure changes rapidly with the changes in altitude.

What are the Symptoms of Airplane Ear?

Airplane ear could happen in one ear or in both ears.

Symptoms include

  • A feeling of stuffiness or fullness in the ear(s)
  • Hearing that is muffled
  • Hearing loss that is slight to moderate
  • Moderate pain or discomfort within the ear

Severe cases, which should be examined by a doctor, could result in

  • Intense pain within the ear(s)
  • High amounts of pressure in the ear(s), much like being under water
  • Moderate to severe amounts of hearing loss
  • Vertigo (dizziness)
  • Vomiting that is the result of vertigo
  • Bleeding from the ear
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ear)

Airplane Ear Causes

When the air pressure outside the ear and the air pressure inside the ear are not in balance, then the eardrum or tympanic membrane cannot vibrate. The eustachian tube runs from the middle ear to the back of the nose, where it is open to air. This tube manages air pressure. As the plane ascends, the rapidly increasing air pressure inside the ear causes it to swell up much like a balloon being blown up. On the other side of the coin, when the plane comes in for a landing, the air pressure in the inner ear decreases. This causes the tympanic membrane to be sucked inward like a curtain when the window is open.

When an airplane ascends or descends, the air pressure changes so quickly that the eustachian tubes can’t get air into the ear quickly enough to maintain equal air pressure. That’s when airplane ear happens. Other causes of airplane ear include sinus infections, stuffy noses, colds and flu, deep sea diving, explosions close at hand, and enclosed barometric chambers.

How is Airplane Ear Treated?

Self-care can work on relieving airplane ear. For example, you can try chewing gum, swallowing, or yawning. These actions could help to correct the air pressure imbalance or even prevent it before it occurs.

Serious cases of airplane ear should be treated by a physician. If you experience any of the severe symptoms of airplane ear, or if the fullness, discomfort, or muffled hearing occurs for longer than a few hours, you should see a doctor.

Airplane Ear Prevention

Keeping the eustachian tubes from caving in and the air pressure between the outside and the inside equalized is vital.

It requires a few steps:

  • Yawn and swallow a lot
  • Pinch the nostrils and gently blow as if blowing the nose
  • Don’t fly if a cold, flu or stuffy nose from allergies is present
  • The day before flying, take a decongestant like Dimetap or Contac to shrink the inner ear membranes
  • Right before getting on the plane, use a pediatric nasal spray. It isn’t too much medication that won’t cause trouble later on
  • Chew gum during the trip
  • Don’t sleep, especially during descent
  • Prior to descent, spray a little more of the pediatric nasal spray and take another decongestant tablet to help shrink the ear and nose membranes
Last Reviewed:
September 11, 2016
Last Updated:
November 03, 2017