Airplane Ear

Author thumbnail Amanda Deveney  |  Published 29 April 2024  | Updated 16 May 2024  | 5 mins read

A man on a plane, covering his ears with his hands.

What is Airplane Ear?

If you’ve ever experienced the discomfort in your ears from landing in an airplane, you’ve experienced airplane ear. Airplane ear, also called ear barotrauma, is the stress on your eardrum when the pressure of your environment and middle ear are out of balance. It’s most common to experience on an airplane but can be caused by other factors too.


Airplane ear can occur in just one ear or in both and can range from a mild discomfort to intense pain and even bleeding from your ears in severe cases.

Spinning vision.

Some common symptoms of airplane ear include:

  • Moderate discomfort or soreness in the ear
  • Feeling of fullness or stuffiness in the ear
  • Muffled hearing or mild to moderate hearing loss

More severe symptoms can include:

  • Severe pain
  • Increased ear pressure
  • Moderate to severe hearing loss
  • Tinnitus, or ringing in your ear
  • Spinning sensation (vertigo)
  • Bleeding from your ears


As we’ve mentioned, airplane ear is caused by an imbalance between the pressure in the middle ear and the surrounding environment. It typically happens when there is a rapid change in air pressure, such as when the airplane ascends or descends. The eustachian tube (ET) often can’t react fast enough, which causes the symptoms. Swallowing or yawning helps to open the ET and allows the middle ear to get more air, equalising the pressure.

Despite its name, airplane ear isn’t just limited to just aircraft. It can be caused by any change in pressure including.

  • Scuba diving
  • Driving in the mountains
  • Elevator rides in tall buildings
  • Riding a speeding train through a narrow tunnel
  • Hyperbaric oxygen chambers
  • Explosions nearby, such as in a war zone
Diagram showing the structure of the human ear, detailing the parts of the outer, middle, and inner ear.

What is middle ear?

The middle ear is the part of your ear behind the eardrum. The area includes three small bones. They are the hammer, called the malleus; the anvil, known as the incus; and the stirrup, known as the stapes. The middle ear connects to the back of the nose and throat by a narrow area called the eustachian tube which helps to drain away mucus and debris. When you hear a sound, the air behind the eardrum allows sound vibrations to pass through the bones into the inner ear which transmits it to your brain.

Risk factors

Anyone can experience airplane ear. However, children and those with narrow eustachian tubes tend to be more vulnerable. Young children are especially susceptible to airplain ear and may experience more severe symptoms.

Other risk factors that can increase your likelihood of being vulnerable to airplane ear include:

  • Hay fever/Allergies
  • Common cold
  • Sinus infection
  • Middle ear infection (otitis media)


There are a few methods you can use to help prevent your airplane ear from bothering you.

  • Yawn and swallow as you ascend and descend – This will help to open your eustachian tube and equalise the pressure.
  • Suck or chew something as you ascend and descend – hard boiled sweets or chewing gum are ideal. Good for children who may not be able to yawn or swallow without. Young babies can be given a dummy or bottle to encourage swallowing.
  • Use the Valsalva manoeuvre while ascending and descending – a manoeuvre described as “forced expiration against a closed glottis”. Essentially, a breathing technique that mimics doing things like blowing up a balloon or blowing your nose. You can do it by pinching your nose, closing your mouth and forcefully breathing out for a few seconds. It can be used to equalise the pressure in your ears.
  • Stay awake during takeoffs and landings – This is so you can perform preventative measures and selfcare. If your child falls asleep during these times, that’s fine – let them sleep.
  • Apply an over-the-counter nasal spray – Use a nasal spray about 30 minutes to an hour before takeoff and landing to help ease congestion.
  • Use decongestant tablets – As with nasal sprays, these can be taken 30 minutes before takeoff and landing to reduce congestion. But shouldn’t be taken by those with some health conditions – make sure you read the guidelines.
  • Take allergy medication – Antihistamines can help to reduce congestion caused by allergies.
  • Try filtered earplugs – Often sold in airport shops, pharmacies, or hearing clinics, these earplugs slowly equalise the pressure against your eardrum during ascents and descents. But you will still need to yawn and swallow to relieve pressure.


To be diagnosed with airplane ear, your audiologist will likely be able to make a diagnosis based on your history and an examination of your ear with a lighted instrument (otoscope) as well as checking the condition of your eardrum.

An audiologist examining the ear of a patient with an otoscope.

Chronic ear barotrauma

In some chronic cases of airplane ear, the symptoms can be more severe including:

  • Bleeding or drainage from the ear
  • Perforated eardrum
  • Hearing loss

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, book a check up with your GP or audiologist.


Airplane ear affects many people, with some being more vulnerable to it than others. It’s caused by an imbalance of pressure between your middle ear and your environment – most notably in an airplane hence, airplane ear.

It can be easily fixed with some preventative measures and selfcare, but in severe cases may need to be seen by a doctor.


Airplane ear usually lasts only a few minutes but if you’re congested or if you have a eustachian tube that is narrower than normal symptoms can last a few days after your flight.

If your ear pressure from airplane ear won’t go away, it might mean that your eustachian tube is still blocked or inflamed. It should eventually clear up by itself but you can try some home remedies like the valsalva manoeuvre to help.

You can but you might find that the change in air pressure is more painful than normal. Take some decongestants to help clear it or chew some gum to help ease the pain.

No. Headphones don’t have an effect on the air pressure in your ears so wearing them doesn’t have an impact on whether you get airplane ear or not.