Some of us experience discomfort or pain in our ears during flying. It happens mainly during ascent and descent, or if the altitude changes suddenly. It almost feels like the ear is blocked and we cannot hear properly. This phenomenon is commonly called ‘Airplane Ear’.
‘Airplane Ear’ is very common. It is usually quite moderate and fixes itself in many cases. However, it may turn severe and the pain may get worse. The pressure in the ears may resemble that of an underwater diver. Furthermore, you may experience moderate to severe hearing loss, ringing in your ear (tinnitus) or spinning sensation (vertigo). The ears may also bleed in extreme cases.
Why does it happen?
This happens because a rapid change in air pressure stretches the eardrum, suddenly.
We need to understand two aspects here. First, the structure of the ear and second, what happens to the air pressure during ascent and descent.
If we look at the structure of the ear, below, we can see a narrow passage in the inner ear called the Eustachian tube that regulates the air pressure. What we cannot see in the illustration is that this tube is connected to the nasopharynx which is a small opening where the throat and the nasal passage meet. The ear, nose, and throat are therefore connected exactly there. When the surrounding air pressure is normal, mostly on land, the tympanic membrane or the eardrum behaves normally and responds to sound and airwaves accordingly.
Air pressure and how it affects the ear
A rapid change in altitude creates an instant difference in air pressure between inside and outside the ear. When your flight takes off and the plane begins to ascend, the air pressure inside the inner ear quickly becomes greater than the outside air pressure. The eardrum then swells outward. Imagine a cake rising inside the oven while baking. This causes discomfort and you feel that your ear is ‘blocked’.
The opposite happens while landing. The pressure inside the inner ear rapidly becomes less than outside and the eardrum goes inward. Imagine a vacuum pulling in all the air that causes stretching of the eardrum and flattening of the Eustachian tube. This results in extreme discomfort and also pain.
Often, a quick swallowing or yawning action alleviates the symptoms because it allows the Eustachian tube to open up and restore the air pressure to normal levels. We feel that the ear has just ‘popped’.
Sometimes it is not that easy. It becomes more painful during descent if you have any other condition like congestion of the nose or swelling due to infection. The air gets trapped in the area behind the eardrum putting pressure on it giving rise to excruciating pain.
What can you do?
If you have any questions, you're welcome to contact us for more details at the Tinnitus & Hearing Center of Arizona at (480) 831-6159.
Our patient, Lt. Colonel Ralph "Slick" Aguirre, USAF (Retired) started his career in aviation flying Huey helicopters in Vietnam at the age of eighteen. He went on to fly F-15 fighter jets in the US Air Force. From there he transitioned into a civilian career in aviation flying for Southwest Airlines. The years he spent in aviation started to seriously affect his ears. The situation reached the point where he grounded himself from flying any longer, for fear it was no longer possible without causing further damage to his ears. Slick arrived at our clinic looking for any possible help. We're happy to report that we have Slick flying again and he couldn't be happier. Slick graciously offered Dr. Rohe the opportunity of a lifetime to fly in this plane as a way of saying thanks for treating his tinnitus and keeping him up in the air. He recently told Dr. Rohe that all the time he spent flying was the equivalent of three full years in the air. That is quite an accomplishment.
The plane pictured below is a Pilatu PC-7, a turboprop with 750hp. If you are a pilot or a frequent flier that suffers from tinnitus, know that with the right guidance, you can absolutely keep flying! Thank you Slick.
Tinnitus & Hearing Center of Arizona Discusses Air Travel with Hearing Loss
Traveling is fun to do, but those with hearing loss may be facing different struggles then the rest of folks. Just like little kids being sensitive to air travel, those with hearing loss go through somewhat of a similar thing. A Scottsdale audiologist understands that the changes being implemented on these flights and through other air travel are difficult, but with hearing loss, they can seem much more difficult than for those that might have full hearing capabilities. Due to this, it is important that the correct steps are taken to help those with hearing loss also have pleasant flights.
Preparing for the Trip
Before heading out for the trip there are some things you want to keep in mind. You want to visit your hearing healthcare professional first and foremost to have everything looked into. You also want to make sure your hearing aids are charged up and ready to go, well fitted and clean, and spare batteries packed. And don’t forget to bring the cleaning kit with you!
Getting Through Security Check
Make sure to let TSA know that you’re wearing hearing aids before walking through the metal detector, as you might get flagged for them. You don’t want additional screening done because they didn’t know. If you’re not wearing them on you, then making sure not to put them through the conveyor belt is a good idea, as this can ruin them of course!
Be in the Loop
Flight areas and boarding decks can be loud and chaotic; however, airports have something known as the induction loop system. Hearing aids equipped with telecoils can be connected to this system so that they can hear the announcements much clearer - even over the hustle and bustle of the airport. You just have to have telecoils in your hearing aids and have them switched to that setting to be connected. Does your hearing aid have telecoils? The larger it is, the more likely it does. Smaller, discrete hearing aids tend not to have them.
You may not be able to hear the videos or read captioning on anything that is on the plane, so this is a downfall, but you’re able to bring your own. You also do not have to turn off your hearing aids while on the plane, even when the attendants tell you turn all of your devices off, as they are safe to use now.
Know Your Rights
Always know your rights while traveling. Being hard of hearing is something that many people suffer from and being able to correctly be served is great. Find the right help that is needed and use all of the available options offered through the flight and airport and you should be fine with your travels. Just make sure to know how to reduce that ear pain while on the flight and you’ll be set to fly.
It is always good to speak with your audiologist regarding the trip before you take it. They can give you further information on what can be done to help you ease into the flight and get the most from it. Professional audiologists understand the struggles of air travel for those that have limited hearing. Speak with The Tinnitus and Hearing Center of Arizona today regarding the many things you can do to make this one of the best flights you have ever been on. Connect with a leading audiologist in Scottsdale today at https://www.tinnitusaz.com/scottsdale.html.
Tinnitus and Hearing Center of Arizona, LLC
2034 E. Southern Avenue, Suite I
Tempe, AZ 85282
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Dr. Rohe is a nationally-recognized audiologist specializing in Tinnitus Therapy and other hearing conditions.