Ear Barotrauma, also known as airplane ear, is a condition caused by changes in air pressure and typically affects the ears. Stress is put on the eardrum as a result of high-pressure environments and it is usually caused by rapid changes in altitude. You’ll recognise it if you’ve ever felt your ears ‘pop’ after a flight or going diving.
Symptoms of ear barotrauma
- Feeling of pressure, fullness or discomfort in the ear
- Muffled sound or difficulty hearing
- Ear pain
- Muffled hearing
- Slight to moderate hearing loss
- Ringing in your ear
In more advanced cases, you might experience severe ear pain, injury to the eardrum and dizziness.
Causes of ear barotrauma
Our ears contain tubes (called Eustachian tubes) that connect your nose and throat to the middle of your ear, as well as being responsible for balancing your ear pressure. When these tubes become blocked, it affects the way the ear pressure is managed and can cause ear barotrauma.
Pressure changes associated with high altitudes is the most common reason for this, and most people will experience the conditions when a plane is landing or taking off, when they go diving, or if they are in a mountainous area where air pressure varies. Higher pressure can cause the eardrum to stretch, which is why your hearing is affected.
Airplane ear risk factors
Ear barotrauma can affect anyone, but those with narrow eustachian tubes are at higher risk. This includes young children who are especially prone to airplane ear and may experience worse symptoms.
Other risk factors include:
- Hay fever/Allergies
- Common cold
- Sinus infection
- Middle ear infection (otitis media)
Diagnosis for ear barotrauma
Your GP will ask you about your symptoms, and when they occurred. They’ll also have a look inside your ears with an instrument called an otoscope, checking whether there is any fluid in your ear as well as the condition of your eardrum.
Ear barotrauma treatment
It’s quite normal for cases of ear barotrauma to clear on their own, without any need for treatment. This should happen after a few minutes or an hour after your symptoms begin.
In more severe cases, treatment and recovery time will depend on the underlying cause. Ear barotrauma can sometimes result in a ruptured eardrum, which can take a few weeks to completely heal.
Chronic cases of ear barotrauma
Chronic cases can cause further issues, and in more severe cases people may experience symptoms such as:
- A feeling of pressure in the ear
- Hearing loss
- Ear pain
- Drainage or bleeding from the ear
- Eardrum injury
In some severe or chronic cases, surgery may be required to help with the equalisation of pressure within the ear. This can be done through grommets which are small, cylindrical tubes that are placed into the eardrum to allow air to flow through the ear. These are commonly used with those who frequently fly or change altitudes.
Preventing ear barotrauma
If you’re on a plane, or in high altitude areas like mountains, there are a few things you can do to make sure the tubes in your ears stay open and you prevent ear barotrauma:
- Drink water
- Yawn regularly — to keep the eustachian tubes open
- Chew gum or suck on sweets
- Make sure you’re awake while the plane is landing
- Wear earplugs designed for air travel — filtered earplugs can be used to slowly equalise the pressure against your eardrum while flying
- Antihistamines or decongestants may help if you have allergies or a cold
If you’re a diver, you should descend and ascend slowly in order to allow the pressure to equalise in your ears. You can also buy ear protection to use when you go diving.
If you hear a ‘pop’ and your hearing becomes clearer, this means your Eustachian tubes have opened, and the pressure has been restored to normal.
Ear barotrauma and flying
What are the effects of flying on the ears and hearing?
Many people with hearing loss or tinnitus find that flying can cause pain, discomfort in their ears or temporary hearing loss. Your ears should get back to their normal state soon after landing.
Why does flying sometimes cause pain or discomfort in the ears?
Flying can create a difference between the air pressure in the part of your ear called the 'middle ear' and the atmospheric pressure of the plane.
This is what can cause pain, discomfort or temporary hearing loss during a flight.
How to unblock your ears after flying
Self-care therapies are often the best way to clear symptoms. Often referred to as ‘popping’ your ears, try these remedies to relieve pressure in the ears:
- Frequent yawning/swallowing
- Valsalva manoeuvre — this technique involves pinching your nostrils shut and gently blowing air back into the nose. This must be done carefully, with little force, or it can cause damage to the eardrum.
If your symptoms persist for more than a few days after the flight or high-pressure scenario, seek advice from your doctor as soon as you can. They might be able to offer other treatment options, such as an earpopper or otovent.
When to consult a specialist
If you experience any severe pain, dizziness or any fluid or drainage from the ear, it’s best to go and see your doctor. They may be able to prescribe something to help with your symptoms or diagnose any underlying conditions. However, if you experience hearing loss that doesn’t go away, then you should see a hearcare specialist to have your hearing checked. You can book an appointment here to talk to a member of the team.