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Deborah L. Berndtson, MS, CCC-A
Ears and Air Travel
SONUS Hearing Care Professionals - Alexandria

Ears and Air Travel

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.
The ear is divided into three parts
The outer ear- the part of the ear that you can see on the side of the head plus the ear canal leading down to the eardrum.
The middle ear – the eardrum, ear bones (ossicles), and the air spaces behind the eardrum and in the mastoid cavities.
The inner ear – where the nerve endings area for the organs of hearing and balance (equilibrium).
What causes blocked ears
during a flight?
The Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the back of the throat. This tube can be blocked, or obstructed, for a variety of reasons. When that occurs, the middle ear pressure cannot be equalized. The air already there is absorbed and a vacuum occurs, sucking the eardrum inward and stretching it. The eardrum cannot vibrate naturally, so sounds are muffled or blocked, and the stretching can be painful.
The most common causes for a blocked Eustachian tube is the common cold, sinus infections and nasal allergies. The membranes that line the Eustachian tube are similar to and continuous with nasal membranes. Consequently, a stuffy nose leads to stuffy ears because the swollen membranes block the opening of the Eustachian tube.
Another cause of blocked Eustachian tubes is infection of the middle ear which creates swollen membranes. Children are especially vulnerable to blockages because their Eustachian tubes are narrower.
How Can Air Travel
Cause Problems?
Air travel is associated with changes in air pressure. To maintain comfort, the Eustachian tube must open frequently and wide enough to equalize the changes in pressure. This is especially true when the airplane is landing.
Actually, any situation in which rapid altitude or pressure changes occur creates the problem such as riding in elevators or diving to the bottom of a swimming pool. Deep sea divers are taught how to equalize their ear pressures; so are pilots. You can learn the tricks too.
How to Unblock Your Ears
The act of swallowing activates the muscle that opens the Eustachian tube. Yawning is even better. It is a stronger activator of that muscle. Avoid sleeping during descent, because you may not be swallowing enough to keep up with the pressure changes.
If yawning and swallowing are not effective, the most forceful way to unblock your ears is as follows
Step 1 Pinch your nostrils shut
Step 2 Take a mouthful of air
Step 3 Using your cheek and throat muscles, gently force the air into the back of your nose as if you were trying to blow your thumb and fingers off your nostrils
Over-the-counter decongestants and sprays may also help. Due to the possibilities of side effects, it is important to consult your physician. Pressure equalization ear plugs (e.g. Earplanes) may also be helpful and can be found at pharmacies and airports.
Wearing hearing aids is not likely make to make the pressure equalization problem worse. If you do use hearing aids, however, you will likely want to remove them during the flight due to the relatively high levels of noise in the cabin.
Ask your audiologist for more details if you have experienced problems during flying.

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