If you’ve been on an airplane, you know what happens shortly after takeoff: your head feels clogged, you get a sharp pain in your ears, the pressure builds up, and eventually your ears will “pop.” This pop will make you feel better—until the plane starts to land and it happens all over again. If your vacation plans this summer involve plane travel, you may be wondering why this happens.
Ears under pressure
Popping ears are the result of a tiny canal in each ear called the eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the throat. Eustachian tubes keep the pressure in your middle ear equal to the air pressure outside your body by allowing air to flow through the inner ear. However, when the outside pressure changes rapidly, like when you’re on an airplane, diving into a pool, or driving up a mountain, the tubes may struggle to adjust to the sudden change and thus become blocked.
When the pressure in your head is greater than the pressure outside, as happens when a plane takes off, the eardrum expands outward. The opposite happens when landing—the pressure outside is greater than in the ear, making the eardrum swell inward. During these times, you’re likely get that clogged feeling and pain in your ears. Since swollen eardrums are unable to function properly, you might not hear as well during this time.
The popping sensation is the result of the eustachian tube reopening, equalizing the pressure and helping you feel comfortable and hear normally again. So, what can you do to make your ears pop sooner to avoid the pain?
The key to popping your ears is stimulating the muscles in the back of your throat that control the eustachian tubes. Yawning or swallowing will accomplish this. If you can’t yawn on demand, bring some chewing gum or hard candy, which lead you to swallow more frequently.
The ear pain associated with changes in pressure can be worse for kids and babies. Since their eustachian tubes are shorter, narrower, and more horizontal than an adult’s, it can be harder for them to equalize the pressure. To help your little ones cope, you can give lollipops to older children or have them drink through a straw during takeoff and landing. Meanwhile, giving babies a bottle or pacifier during these times will encourage swallowing to ease the pressure.
Some frequent travelers may use a decongestant or nasal spray before takeoff and descent, which can help reduce swelling and make it easier for your ears to pop.
Safe hearing while traveling
In rare situations, if you can’t unblock the eustachian tubes and never get to the pop, you might end up with fluid in your ear. This could result in an ear infection or perforation of the eardrum, which may lead to hearing loss.
However, for most people the buildup of pressure and the resulting pop are normal occurrences when flying, and the effects go away shortly after you’re back on level ground. So, you can enjoy air travel, knowing that you can see all the sights—and hear all the sounds—of your vacation destination.