Whether it’s on a plane or in the elevator of a high-rise building, we’ve all experienced that annoying sensation of muffled hearing and discomfort in the ears. This phenomenon, appropriately dubbed airplane ear, is caused by stress exerted on your eardrum and other middle ear tissues. This occurs when the air pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure in the environment are out of balance. We often experience it during fast changes in altitude which cause air pressure to change.
To be more specific, this imbalance of air pressure prevents your eardrum from vibrating as it should. Air pressure is regulated in our ear by a narrow passage called the Eustachian tube. One end of this tube is connected to the middle ear, while the other end is a tiny opening located where the back of the nasal cavity and the top of the throat meet. When air pressure in your surroundings change rapidly, your Eustachian tube doesn’t react quickly enough and you get airplane ear.
Airplane ear can occur in one or both ears, and symptoms can vary from person to person. Usually, hearing becomes muffled, perhaps with a feeling of stuffiness as well. Some also experience a degree of discomfort or pain in the ears. We all have our own way of dealing with airplane ear, whether it’s yawning, swallowing or chewing gum. These actions activate muscles that open the Eustachian tube and allow the middle ear to receive air, which will usually prevent or correct symptoms of airplane ear.
For those on a plane, experts also recommend flyers to stay hydrated to ensure better function of the Eustachian tubes. This means avoiding alcohol and caffeine, which can dehydrate you. Filtered earplugs can also be helpful, as they slowly equalize the pressure against your eardrums during ascents and descents. Those that are prone to more severe airplane ear should speak to their doctor for other treatment options.