Many travelers find flying to be a real pain in the ear. About a third of all travelers experience ear pain or clogging due to rapid changes in air pressure. If you have a head cold, sinus problems or seasonal allergies, the likelihood of having an earache while flying increases even more.
Some people reduce the pain with easy techniques, like chewing gum, swallowing, yawning or performing the valsalva maneuver (pinching your nostrils shut, closing your mouth, and trying to blow air out of your nose). Others try a variety of over-the-counter medications, such as Afrin (oxymetazoline), Vicks or Sudafed (pseudoephedrine).
The majority of ear problems during flying are caused by problems with the eustachian tube (the tube that connects the middle ear to the throat). This is also known as eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD). They caution, however, against self-medicating with over-the-counter treatments.
Medications containing decongestants may wear off during the flight, thus increasing your ear pain and eustachian tube dysfunction upon landing. Additionally, medications containing oxymetazoline or pseudoephedrine may result in rebound nasal congestion or significantly increase blood pressure.
An evaluation by an ENT surgeon is recommended if ear pain and pressure becomes a frequent problem for fliers, scuba divers, skiers or allergy sufferers. An office visit allows an ENT surgeon to evaluate the nasal lining, sinus function, eustachian tube anatomy and pressure behind the eardrum.
Until recently, treatment options available were limited to prescription nasal steroid sprays or—in some cases— placement of an ear tube to equalize the pressure. Recent advances in ENT surgery, however, now include minimally invasive treatment options for ETD.
ENT specialists are now able to dilate the eustachian tube with a small balloon catheter, offering a minimally invasive procedure with little to no downtime to cure this painful and annoying problem.
Other helpful hints include drinking plenty of fluids and avoiding dehydrating drinks such as caffeine and alcohol. Drinking fluids thins mucous that may clog the eustachian tube and encourages swallowing, which helps to open the tube and equalize the pressure in the ears.
Finally, any ear pain that persists beyond two to three days after flying should be considered urgent and evaluated by a healthcare provider to prevent any long-term ear damage.