What is aeroplane ear?
Some people experience ear pain when flying in a plane. Usually this happens as the plane descends to land. The pain may get worse the lower the plane gets and can be quite severe on landing. The pain usually goes away soon after landing.
What causes the pain?
The pain is caused by unequal pressure that develops between the air in the middle ear and the air outside the ear.
The small space in the middle ear behind the eardrum is normally filled with air. This air space is connected to the back of the nose by a tiny channel called the Eustachian tube. The air on either side of the eardrum should be at the same pressure. Air pressure is highest nearer the ground. So as a plane descends, the air pressure becomes higher. This pushes the eardrum inwards which can be painful. To relieve this, the pressure inside the middle ear has to rise quickly too. Air needs to travel up the Eustachian tube into the middle ear to equalise the pressure.
Why are some people affected more than others?
The Eustachian tube is normally closed but opens from time to time when we swallow, yawn or chew. In most people, just normal swallowing and chewing quickly cause air to travel up the Eustachian tube to equalise the pressure. Some airlines offer sweets to suck and eat when the plane is descending, to encourage you to chew and swallow.
However, the Eustachian tube in some people does not open as easily and so the pressure may not be equalised so quickly. For example, some people may have a more narrow Eustachian tube than normal. Also, if you have any condition that causes a blockage to the Eustachian tube then the air cannot travel up to the middle ear. The common cause of a blocked Eustachian tube is from mucus and inflammation that occur with colds, throat infections, hay fever, etc. Any condition causing extra mucus in the back of the nose can cause this problem.
Did you find this information useful?
- Eustachian Tube Dysfunction; Baylor College of Medicine
- Ear pain during travel; BMJ Best Practice, 2016
- Cabin air pressure; International travel and health, World Health Organization (WHO)
- Air travel and children's health issues; Paediatr Child Health. 2007 Jan 12(1):45-59.
- Your patient and air travel - A guide for physicians; British Airways (BA) Health Services
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