Only a few moments after the start of the plane, you hear a "crackling" in your ears and feel that you are hearing worse: Everyone knows these problems when flying. But where does the pressure on the ears and what helps against the complaints after takeoff and landing? The reason for the feeling of pressure in the ears is the change in the air pressure in the aircraft cabin during the ascent and descent. This results in a pressure difference between the auditory canal and the middle ear, which leads to a protrusion of the eardrum. This then feels as if the ears are "too".
Cold makes it difficult to balance the pressure
Normally, yawning or swallowing can easily bring about pressure equalization. In children or an existing cold, however, the balance can be made difficult and pressure on the ears may last a few hours to days. Although this is unpleasant, but in most cases harmless. Rarely does the eardrum damage the eardrum due to the difference in pressure during flight.
Pressure change as a cause
As altitude increases, air pressure in the atmosphere decreases. In the aircraft cabin, the pressure is artificially increased and is about three quarters of the pressure on the ground at cruising altitude. This is comparable to the air pressure on a 2, 500 meter high mountain.
As the aircraft climbs, the ambient pressure drops. The pressure in the middle ear, however, remains the same, because it is closed by the eardrum airtight to the external auditory canal. Due to the resulting overpressure in the middle ear, the eardrum bulges outwards and can no longer swing freely. This usually manifests itself as "cracking" or "popping, " followed by uncomfortable pressure on the ears and hearing loss. Occasionally you may experience earaches or headaches.
Pressure equalization through "Eustachian tube"
The pressure equalization takes place via the so-called Eustachian tube (tuba auditiva, Eustachian tube). This partially bony, sometimes cartilaginous tube connects the middle ear to the nasopharynx and is normally closed to protect the ear from possible upper respiratory tract infections. When swallowing or yawning, it opens and air can escape from the middle ear. This compensates for the pressure difference to the environment and the feeling of pressure on the ears disappears.
Pressure on the ears: what to do?
So if you feel pressure on the ears on the plane, you should yawn heartily or swallow a few times to balance the pressure. When taking off and landing, it is often helpful to suck a candy or chew gum.
If that does not help, you can try the so-called Valsalva maneuver: the nose is held with two fingers and then exhaled vigorously when the mouth is closed. The resulting overpressure in the nasopharynx opens the Eustachian tube and allows air to escape from the middle ear.
Most people have more discomfort during the approach than at takeoff. The cause of this is the resulting negative pressure in the middle ear, which is naturally more difficult to compensate for than an overpressure in the middle ear. Therefore, especially during descent, you should perform pressure equalization techniques in good time.
Help children with pressure equalization
Babies and toddlers often have difficulty adjusting the pressure. By feeding or breastfeeding, you can stimulate suction and chewing movements in your child and thus prevent earaches. In addition, children should not sleep during the take-off and during the landing. Because when awake, the Eustachian tube opens spontaneously a few times a minute in children and the pressure on the ears can disappear on their own.
Nasal spray helps with cold
A cold can be particularly uncomfortable when flying, because the mucous membranes are swollen and thus complicate the pressure balance. Especially with colds, it is therefore recommended to use a decongestant nasal spray about half an hour before departure and landing. If you have severe colds or are suffering from otitis media, you should ask your Otolaryngologist for advice on whether a flight in this condition can be safely carried out.
Danger when flying: Injury to the eardrum
In rare cases, the pressure change in the aircraft can lead to damage to the eardrum (barotrauma). Especially if the cold or congenital constriction of the Eustachian tube makes the pressure equalization difficult or impossible, it can lead to an overstretching of the eardrum. In the worst case, it can bleed or tear.
An eardrum injury usually manifests itself in the following symptoms:
- stinging earache
- hearing loss
If you experience these symptoms during or after a flight, you should consult an ear, nose and throat specialist as soon as possible.