Airplane Travel - Ear Problems

Ears and Airplane Travel, Ear Wax, and Ear Cleaning

Ears and air travel

Anatomy of the ear
Click Image to Enlarge

The experience of "popping" ears when flying on an airplane is the most common medical complaint of airplane passengers. Due to an air pocket in the middle ear that is sensitive to air pressure changes, the changing altitude as the plane takes off or lands can cause discomfort in the ears.

Swallowing or yawning usually can help "pop" the ears (activating the muscle that opens the Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear with the nasopharynx) and ease the discomfort. However, ears that are already blocked (by a cold, for example) cannot equalize the air pressure in the middle ear adequately, therefore, creating a vacuum that sucks the eardrum in and stretches it. When the eardrum cannot vibrate, sound is muffled and the stretched eardrum can be very painful.

If swallowing or yawning does not relieve the ears, the American Academy of Otolaryngology recommends trying the following ear-clearing technique:

Small children are especially vulnerable to blocked ear canals because their Eustachian tubes are narrower. Use of a bottle or pacifier during take-off and landing may help pop their ears. 

What is ear wax?

Earwax, also called cerumen, is naturally produced by the outer part of the ear canal to keep the ear clean. It performs this task by trapping dust and sand particles before they reach the eardrum. Wax also coats the fragile skin of the ear canal and acts as a water repellent. Accumulated wax usually migrates to the ear opening, dries up, and falls out.

How should ears be properly cleaned?

Normally, ears canals are self-cleaning and should not need cleaning with any devices or cotton-tipped applicators. Cleaning the ear can cause problems by pushing the ear wax deeper into the ear canal and against the eardrum. However, sometimes wax can accumulate excessively, resulting in a blocked ear canal. In the case of a blocked ear canal, consult your health care provider. He or she may recommend one or more of the following:

Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis and for additional information.

Click here to view the
Online Resources of Otolaryngology


Top of Page return to top of page