Ear pain in an Aeroplane

Is your ear pain the first line of thought which comes to your mind when you considering travelling by air? Is the thought of air travel terrifying you? Are your ear pain warning you about a possible descent even before the captain has announced it? If you are one of these people read on…

It is time to bid farewell to ear pain and continue enjoying our journeys.


The ear pain generally happens during the ascent and descent of the plane and the inability of Eustachian tube to handle the change in pressure on either side of the eardrum.

There are three parts of the ear drum – the external, middle and inner ear.

The external ear is open to pressure changes and its pressure is equal to the pressure in our surrounding atmosphere. Middle ear is a sealed cavity and the pressure in it is managed by a pipe opening into it called the Eustachian tube. The eardrum sits in between the external and middle ears.

The Eustachian tube is a pipe which is leading from the back of the nose and the middle ear. It is generally closed and opens up whenever you yawn, chew or swallow allowing for equalization of pressure in the middle ear.

During the aeroplane ascent, the pressure in the outer atmosphere starts dropping, and the higher pressure in the middle ear pushes the eardrum outside, stretching it. When the aeroplane descents the pressure in the external ear and outside atmosphere increases and becomes more than the pressure in the middle ear pushing the eardrum inside. The stretch of the eardrum is what causes the pain and discomfort. In this case, the responsibility of maintaining pressure falls on the Eustachian tubes which have to work overtime to maintain the balance of pressures.

Eustachian tube is ready to work overtime except when specific risk factors hinder its function:

  • Narrow Eustachian tube such as seen in infants and children
  • Conditions causing the formation of mucus in the back of the nose such as common cold, sinusitis, allergic rhinitis
  • Ear infections
  • Sleeping during ascent and descent of the flight.

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