Back to Knowledge Center Results

Ear Problems and Air Travel

​​​Airplanes are one of the more popular ways to travel when going on vacation, but the consequence to faster travel time can be a pain in the ear. When the plane rises in elevation, air pressure decreases, causing your ears to clog.

Normally when you’re on the ground, your ear has equal-pressure inside and out. Rising further in the air causes pressure to decrease and the air in your ear to come out. It can hurt when the plane comes down for a landing and the air cannot go back into your ear.

Unblock Your Ears

To unblock clogged ears, usually all you have to do is swallow. The muscle used when swallowing allows air to squirt into the ear, replacing that which is gone.

If swallowing doesn’t work, hold your nose and try blowing the air out of your ears. A sustained pressure is best for unblocking clogged ears. Take a breath and count to five or ten rather than trying to do a quick one or two second blow.

Help Your Children Unblock Their Ears

To help children unblock their ears, try to facilitate that swallowing mechanism:

  • Give young infants and babies a bottle or a pacifier so that they swallow.
  • Give older children some candy or gum, that way they can adjust their ears to the change.
  • When inflating the ears, do not use excessive force. Only use pressure created by the cheek and throat muscles through swallowing.
  • Consult your doctor about using nose sprays and decongestants.

These medicines do have some side effects. Even though they are available over-the-counter without a prescription, it is wise to consult your doctor about potential risks related to your child’s health. If your child travels by airplane, there is a risk of having ear problems. If these problems persist after your trip is over, contact your child's physician.


    Ear Problems and Air Travel

    Jane M. Emanuel, M.D.


    Boys Town Ear, Nose & Throat Institute

    When you're on a plane, your Eustachian tubes are going to open and close in response to the pressure changes in the airplane.

    You probably won't notice this much when going up, or at least most people don't, it's mostly on descent.

    When you're descending you have to add more air to that space behind your eardrum or things are going to get squeezed down and blocked.

    If you're ever snoozing on the plane and the pilot get's on and says "We're going to landing in," they're actually waking you up so you do start having your ears do something to equilibrate.

    The best thing you can do to do that is to swallow. Your Eustachian tubes open when you swallow so that's the most normal activity. The whole gum chewing thing is actually to make you swallow more.

    I tell my patients, who have troubles when they're landing, to make sure you have something to drink and just to keep sipping, sipping and sipping. That's usually going to take care of it for most people.

    If that doesn't do it, you can yawn. That's another big stretch to the Eustachian tube. Some people will pop their ears and that's where you plug your nose, take a breath of air in and gently blow. That forces some air up into your Eustachian tubes.

    How can parents help their children?

    Babies, of course, aren't going to be able to do this maneuver but it's important to wake them up. They aren't going to swallow or swallow very often if they're asleep. You want to wake them up and give them something to drink. So, on descent, make sure they're drinking something and it's usually better if they're upright rather than lying down.

    Sucking on a pacifier may be enough but having them drink from their bottle or Sippy cup is going to help the most.

    Are there any medicines that can help?

    If you have chronic troubles and every time you get on a plane you know you're going to have problems, we have those people pre-treat themselves with a decongestant, an hour before they fly. A nasal spray, called oxymetazoline, they can use an hour or two before they fly. Those are the most common things and help most people.

    Are there any other options if nothing helps?

    I do have some patients that say, I just won't fly. I will drive 10 hours instead of flying. Particularly if they need to fly often, we actually put tubes in adult's ears just for that purpose and it works very well. Sometimes it comes down to, it's time for ear tubes if you have that much trouble.

Hearing and Balance;Ear, Nose and Throat