Why do my ears pop on planes?

10 July 2018

Question

What's going on in my ears when they pop after a flight?

Answer

Chris Smith asked this question to GP Laurence Kemp...

Laurence - So that's a pressure thing that's going on there. If you think of how the ear works. From the outside of the ear there's a small little air canal, which takes you to the eardrum. And then the other side of the eardrum, you got what we call the middle ear. Now in order for the hearing to work properly, you need an equal pressure on either side of the ear. And that way the drum will vibrate when the sound waves hit it and that will be taken through to the unit where their hearing happens. So when you go up in a plane, for example, although they're pressurized cabins, they're not fully pressurized to atmospheric pressure. So as you go upwards the pressure within the cabin drops off a little bit, that causes your eardrum to gradually bulge outwards because the pressure within the middle ear is higher. Now your body's way of resetting that pressure difference is to open up a little tube called the eustachian tube, which runs from the middle air into the back of the nose. And we open up that tube by yawning, by swallowing. So you noticed in a flight, as you go up your ears might begin to hurt a little bit. You swallow, you yawn, maybe you pinch your nose and blow and that opens up these tubes,  equalizes the pressure and that usually relieves the symptoms. Same thing when you come down again, your ears get used to that slightly lower pressure. And as you come down again same thing happens, but in reverse. That time you're letting air in. Interesting thing is that children or babies in particular, kind of children toddler age, their tubes are relatively much smaller and open much less than an adult, which is why it tends to be the young kids on the flight that are crying when you go up and go down rather than the grown ups. And maybe you’ve  just tolerated it a bit better.

Chris - It's a similar phenomenon when one dives into a swimming pool and swims very deep or goes scuba diving. If you go scuba diving on your holidays then you may feel pressure in your ears and you blow down your nose, holding your nose, and you can equalize the pressure that way. It's the same phenomenon.

Laurence - It's the same thing but obviously with water being so much denser than air actually, you can achieve much greater pressure changes when you go up in an aeroplane. Although you're going to 36000 feet, because it's pressurized, that pressure drop is kept fairly modest. If you go diving, about 40 meters under water, there's enough pressure that you can seriously damage your eardrums, unless you know what you're doing.

Chris - Jane?

Jane - Yes, I was just going to ask. I know they often hand out boiled sweets, didn’t they, just before you land on a plane. I never found that helped very much. I find that yawning is much easier to make your ears popped. I just wonder if the little bit of swallowing you do, probably after boiled sweets, does anything or is it just bad for your teeth?

Laurence - I think swallowing helps it opens it up again but I dont think its near as effective as holding your nose and having a good blow to open them up.

Chris - Bad for your teeth, great for your dentist’s wallet.

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