That fullness in your ear when on an airplane that's climbing or descending results from uneven air pressure between your middle ear and the environment.
Airplane ear (ear barotrauma) is the stress on your eardrum that occurs when the air pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure in the environment are out of balance. You might get airplane ear when on an airplane that's climbing after takeoff or descending for landing.
Airplane ear is also called ear barotrauma, barotitis media or aerotitis media.
Self-care steps — such as yawning, swallowing or chewing gum — usually can counter the differences in air pressure and improve airplane ear symptoms. However, for a severe case of airplane ear, you might need to see a doctor.
Airplane ear can occur in one or both ears. Common signs and symptoms include:
If airplane ear is severe, you might have:
If discomfort, fullness or muffled hearing lasts more than a few days, or if you have severe signs or symptoms, call your doctor.
Airplane ear occurs when the air pressure in the middle ear and the air pressure in the environment don't match, preventing your eardrum (tympanic membrane) from vibrating normally. A narrow passage called the eustachian tube, which is connected to the middle ear, regulates air pressure.
When an airplane climbs or descends, the air pressure changes rapidly. The eustachian tube often can't react fast enough, which causes the symptoms of airplane ear. Swallowing or yawning opens the eustachian tube and allows the middle ear to get more air, equalizing the air pressure.
Ear barotrauma can also be caused by:
You may also experience a minor case of barotrauma while riding an elevator in a tall building or driving in the mountains.
Airplane ear happens when there is an imbalance in the air pressure in your middle ear and the air pressure in the environment. This may happen when you’re in an airplane that is climbing or descending. A narrow passage called the eustachian tube regulates air pressure in your ear. When a plane climbs or descends, the air pressure changes quickly, and your eustachian tube often doesn’t react quickly enough. This can trigger airplane ear.
Any condition that blocks the eustachian tube or limits its function can increase the risk of airplane ear. Common risk factors include:
Airplane ear usually isn't serious and responds to self-care. Long-term complications can rarely occur when the condition is serious or prolonged or if there's damage to middle or inner ear structures.
Rare complications may include:
Follow these tips to avoid airplane ear:
If you're prone to severe airplane ear and must fly often or if you're having hyperbaric oxygen therapy to heal wounds, your doctor might surgically place tubes in your eardrums to aid fluid drainage, ventilate your middle ear, and equalize the pressure between your outer ear and middle ear.
To help young children:
In a Valsalva maneuver, you gently blow your nose while pinching your nostrils and keeping your mouth closed.
Your doctor will likely be able to make a diagnosis based on your history and an examination of your ear with a lighted instrument (otoscope).
For most people, airplane ear usually heals with time. When the symptoms persist, you may need treatments to equalize pressure and relieve symptoms.
Your doctor might suggest you take:
To ease discomfort, you can take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve), or an analgesic pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others).
With your drug treatment, your doctor will instruct you to use the Valsalva maneuver. To do this, you pinch your nostrils shut, close your mouth and gently force air into the back of your nose, as if you were blowing your nose.
Surgical treatment of airplane ear is rarely necessary. Even severe injuries, such as a ruptured eardrum or ruptured membranes of the inner ear, usually heal on their own.
However, in rare cases, an office procedure or surgery might be needed. This might include a procedure in which an incision is made in your eardrum (myringotomy) to equalize air pressure and drain fluids.
If you have severe pain or symptoms associated with airplane ear that don't improve with self-care techniques, talk to your family doctor or a general practitioner. You might then be referred to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.
To prepare for your appointment, make a list of:
Questions for your doctor about airplane ear might include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
Your doctor will ask you questions, including:
To treat pain, you might take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve), or a pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others).