Ears and Flying

Authored by Dr Mary Harding, 04 Jul 2017

Patient is a certified member of
The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Dr Helen Huins, 04 Jul 2017

Ear pain or blocked ears are common symptoms when descending to land during a plane journey.

How come my ears hurt on a plane?

If you have ever been on a plane journey, you'll know that by the time the pilot announces that the plane has begun its descent to your destination, your ears will have already given you this message. They start to feel a bit odd, either feeling blocked or painful.

It's all due to pressure changes. As the plane starts to lose height, the pressure in the air around you changes. Until the pressure inside the tubes behind your eardrum adapts, the pressure inside and outside your ear is different. This pushes the eardrum in, stretching it and giving you pain.

Does it happen to everyone?

The pressure change is happening to everyone, but in some people the pain or blockage is worse than others. In particular, if you are congested (because of a cold or hay fever, for example), it is harder for your ears to adapt. If this is the case, you may be more aware of pain or blocked ears than the person sitting next to you.

What can I do for my child?

Kids are also going to get these pressure changes in their ears, and there is invariably a baby bawling as the plane starts to descend and they notice their ears start to hurt. And of course you can't tell a baby to do the Valsalva manoeuvre at this point. It depends a little on the age of the child. Feeding a baby with a bottle often helps, as the sucking and swallowing action will help equalise the pressures for them.

Sucking on a dummy (pacifier) may have the same effect. Avoid boiled sweets in very young children because of the choking risk, but in older kids this may be a remedy which will make you a popular parent.

A drink which has a straw or which is in a sports bottle might also be useful. If your child has a cold and is therefore likely to have more of a problem on the flight, a dose of paracetamol or ibuprofen an hour before landing might make for a more peaceful flight. Some of the measures described above may be helpful, but decongestants are not generally recommended for children.

How long will it last?

Usually your ears will settle soon after landing. Occasionally pain or a feeling of blockage drags on. If it does, see your doctor.

Further reading and references

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