My question regards air travel: People have varying inner ear dimensions, and sinuses (mine are very

Ducan Wright, England UK

By TTM on 02 January 2007 in Travel Articles

My question regards air travel: People have varying inner ear dimensions, and sinuses (mine are very narrow) and for some people, air travel can be VERY uncomfortable on take-off, and to a greater extent, on landing. I have had terrible pain, and illness thereafter on some carriers, (to Malta, Geneva, and Spain I seem to recall) and no effects at on other flights (domestic and to LA, for example). Do airlines have information on this? Do they publish it? I would think it a common concern.

Ear problems are the most common medical complaint of airplane travelers, and while they are usually simple, minor annoyances, they occasionally result in temporary pain and hearing loss. It is the middle ear that causes discomfort during air travel, because it is an air pocket inside the head that is vulnerable to changes in air pressure.

Normally, each time (or each second or third time) you swallow, your ears make a little click or popping sound. This occurs because a small bubble of air has entered your middle ear, up from the back of your nose. It passes through the Eustachian tube, a membrane-lined tube about the size of a pencil lead that connects the back of the nose with the middle ear. The air in the middle ear is constantly being absorbed by its membranous lining and resupplied through the Eustachian tube. In this manner, air pressure on both sides of the eardrum stays about equal. If and when the air pressure is not equal, the ear feels blocked.

It seems you have had different experiences on different flights with diffent airlines. I've done extensive travelling by air (my wife works for Southwest Airlines) and my experience has been that depending on the flight and pilot and airport, some flights ascend or descend more rapidly/dramatically than others. This may be tied to the distance being travelled, other air traffic, etc.

It's my understanding  that airlines have no specific policy, recommedations or information other than what otolaryngologists recommend. In fact, they suggest discussing any sinus/air pressure issues with your doctor.

How To Unblock Your Ears

Swallowing activates the muscle that opens the Eustachian tube. You swallow more often when you chew gum or let mints melt in your mouth. These are good air travel practices, especially just before take-off and during descent. Yawning is even better. Avoid sleeping during descent, because you may not be swallowing often enough to keep up with the pressure changes. (The flight attendant will be happy to awaken you just before descent).

If yawning and swallowing are not effective, unblock your ears as follows:

  • Step 1: Pinch your nostrils shut.
  • Step 2: Take a mouthful of air.
  • Step 3: Using your cheek and throat muscles, force the air into the back of your nose as if you were trying to blow your thumb and fingers off your nostrils.

When you hear a loud pop in your ears, you have succeeded. You may have to repeat this several times during descent.

This question was answered by:
Matt Daigle
American Academy of Otolaryngology


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