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Travel health – what is aeroplane ear?

Ranging from an irritating niggle to a serious and painful condition, aeroplane (or airplane) ear affects many travellers and can deter some people from flying altogether, but the condition is very common and can be treated. Here Leightons, the ear care specialists outlines the causes and symptoms of aeroplane ear, with steps you can take to help reduce its effects…


Known medically as ear barotrauma, barotitis media, or aerotitis media, the symptoms of aeroplane ear occur typically at the beginning and end of a flight, whilst an aeroplane is climbing or descending. If you have been unfortunate enough to have experienced it before, you may have suffered from any or all of the following:

  • Moderate pain or discomfort in one or both ears
  • Impaired hearing, ranging to moderate hearing loss
  • A ‘full’ or ‘blocked’ sensation in one or both ears

In more serious cases, the pain can be severe, lasting anything up to a few hours. Further symptoms of acute cases include vomiting, vertigo, and bleeding from the ear. Unfortunately for some, the pain and pressure inflicted on the ear can in rare situations lead to temporary and even permanent hearing loss. It is therefore paramount that precautions are taken to minimise its effects.

The cause

So why does this happen when you travel? It’s all to do with air pressure. In any situation other than flying, the air pressure inside the inner ear is near enough equal to the pressure outside. When you are sitting on board an aeroplane that is ascending or descending, the two pressure levels begin to shift at such a rate that they can’t keep level with each other. When ascending, the air pressure inside the inner ear quickly surpasses the outside pressure, causing the eardrum to swell outward. It conversely gets sucked inward during descent. It is this suction that causes pain and also prevents the eardrum from being able to vibrate, resulting in impaired hearing.

Medical treatment

If you’re suffering to the point where you need to consult a doctor for medication, there are several over-the-counter treatments available that could greatly ease your discomfort. These include decongestant nasal sprays, oral decongestants, and oral antihistamines, all of which can control the condition’s impact on the middle ear.


There are two common ways to help prevent and reverse the effects of aeroplane ear yourself whilst flying. The first is known as the Valsalva manoeuvre and is used to ‘unblock’ your ear. This is where you seal your nose shut with your fingers, close your mouth, and gently blow – forcing air out until your ears ‘pop’. Whilst this can be effective, it can still be painful for some to perform and is not an advisory technique for those suffering with a cold/allergies or some diagnosed middle-ear pathologies. In this case, try the Toynbee manoeuvre. This simply involves closing your mouth, sealing your nose, and repeatedly swallowing until the pressure equalises.

Aeroplane ear doesn’t have to ruin your travels. Leightons bring the best of the world’s ear care to you, so get in touch for ear and eyecare advice or book an appointment at your local branch to ensure you’re prepared before travelling.


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    The Dime Travelers

    24 January, 2017 at 4:57 pm

    Great article! This is something that I find many people don’t realise. However, I’ve experienced this in the past and it made for a VERY uncomfortable experience! Since that flight, I always make sure to use decongestants and take other necessary precautions prior to boarding a flight!


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