Ears and Flying - Prevention

How can I prevent ear pain when I fly?

Ideally, anyone with an ear infection, cold or respiratory infection, etc, should not fly. However, not many people will cancel their holiday trips for this reason. The following may help people who develop ear pain when flying.

  • Suck sweets when the plane begins to descend. Air is more likely to flow up the Eustachian tube if you swallow, yawn or chew. For babies, it is a good idea to feed them or give them a drink or dummy at the time of descent to encourage them to swallow.
  • Try doing the following: take a breath in. Then, try to breathe out gently with your mouth closed and whilst pinching your nose (the Valsalva manoeuvre). In this way, no air is blown out but you are gently pushing air into the Eustachian tube. If you do this you may feel your ears go 'pop' as air is pushed into the middle ear. This often cures the problem. Repeat this every few minutes until landing - whenever you feel any discomfort in the ear.
  • Do not sleep when the plane is descending to land. (Ask the air steward or stewardess to wake you when the plane starts to descend.) If you are awake you can make sure that you suck and swallow to encourage air to get into the middle ear.

The above usually works for most people. However, if you are particularly prone to develop aeroplane ear, you may wish also to consider the following in addition to the tips above:

  • Antihistamine tablets (available at pharmacies). Take the recommended dose the day before and the day of travel. This may help to limit the amount of mucus that you make.
  • A decongestant nasal spray can dry up the mucus in the nose. For example, one containing xylometazoline - available at pharmacies. Spray the nose about one hour before the expected time of descent. Spray again five minutes later. Then spray every 20 minutes until landing. These are only for use for a short time.
  • Decongestant tablets or syrup. For example, a medication called pseudoephedrine. This can be obtained from a pharmacy, without a prescription. Take the dose recommended half an hour before take-off, and if necessary repeat according to the instructions.
  • Air pressure-regulating ear plugs. These are cheap, reusable ear plugs that are often sold at airports and in many pharmacies. These ear plugs slow the rate of air pressure change on the eardrum. (It is the rapid rate of pressure change on the eardrum that is the problem and these earplugs slow this down.) Follow the instructions that come with them. Basically, you put them in before the door of the aircraft is shut. Some people then wear them for the entire flight. Some people take them out when the plane reaches cruising height and then place them in again just before the plane starts to descend to land.
  • Blowing up a special balloon. Products such as Otovent® are balloons which you blow up through your nose, by blocking off one nostril at a time and blowing through the other. These can be bought from pharmacies, and some people find they help stop the pain during flying or unblock ears afterwards.

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Author:
Dr Mary Harding
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Helen Huins
Document ID:
4241 (v42)
Last Checked:
04 July 2017
Next Review:
03 July 2020

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.