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.