How to Unclog Your Ears on a Plane

(RxWiki News) Learn several ways to unclog your ears during a flight.

Ear problems are common when flying, especially in children. Clogged ears and other unpleasant symptoms are caused by the difference in air pressure between the middle ear and the atmosphere in the plane.

  • The problems can start as the plane climbs to its cruising altitude, but most commonly occur once the plane starts its descent.
  • You may develop a ringing in your ears, experience ear fullness or discomfort, have difficulty hearing, and possibly become dizzy.
  • The most severe cases result in excruciating pain and even rupture of the eardrum.

The medical name for this condition is barotrauma of the ear. It is also known as barotitis media or aerotitis media. The air-filled middle ear (which sits behind the eardrum) is connected to the back of the nose, and thus to the external environment, by the Eustachian tube. Normally, as you swallow, the Eustachian tube equalizes the pressure between these two areas. But the air pressure of the plane’s cabin changes so rapidly during ascent and descent that the Eustachian tube may not be able to do its job.

Here are some ways to unclog your ears during a flight.

Do-it-yourself techniques

The below maneuvers can help you avoid or reduce ear pain, particularly if done when the plane starts descending. If you do them successfully, you’ll feel and hear your ears pop.

Valsalva maneuver

Take a deep breath. Pinch both nostrils shut with your fingers. Close your mouth, and attempt to exhale through your closed nose. Don’t be blow too hard. That's because there’s a small chance this could rupture your eardrum.

Toynbee maneuver

Pinch your nostrils shut and close your mouth while swallowing. Sipping water makes this easier.

Other techniques

Try any of the following:

  • Yawning
  • Chewing gum
  • Sucking on lozenges or hard candy
  • Swallowing often (sipping water can help)

Airplane ear plugs

These have a regulator designed to slow the flow of air between the cabin and your ear.

Otovent and similar devices

These mimic the Valsalva maneuver.

  • You insert a nozzle into one nostril and attach a balloon to the other end.
  • While pinching the other nostril closed, attempt to blow up the balloon with the open nostril.

Preventive medication

If you know you have ear problems when you fly, you can try an oral decongestant such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine. This shrinks mucous membranes, including those at the back of the nose and Eustachian tube. Take it about an hour before departure and then, on longer flights, an hour before descent. Or you may just opt to take it before descent. Oral decongestants work better than nasal-spray decongestants.

If you fly when you have a cold, oral decongestants will help and might even prevent an ear infection from developing. Flying with a cold can be very painful. You may also want to take an over-the-counter pain reliever to manage the discomfort.

For people with nasal congestion from allergies, antihistamines may help prevent ear pain during flights, since they also help shrink swollen mucous membranes.