Saturday, 27 July 2019

What happens to your ears during a flight?

Photo KLM
Pressure and ear pain during a flight can be extremely annoying, even painful. And almost as unpleasant is having to wait another 12 hours, or longer, before being able to hear normally again. 

KLM's Didi Aaftink explains what happens and how to make it more bearable during your next flight:

 I’d like to give you some background information on the phenomenon as ear pain during a flight, as well as some tips and tricks on how to prevent it, or minimise its effects.

How do our ears work?

Our ears enable us to hear sounds, which are actually vibrations in the air. These vibrations travel through the ear canal to a thin membrane called the eardrum, which also hermetically seals the ear canal from within. On the other side of the eardrum is a tube called the Eustachian tube, which runs from the inner ear to the back of our nose/throat, where it can vent to the air outside. This tube allows air to flow to or from the inner ear, depending on whether the pressure in the inner ear is higher or lower than ambient air pressure. An obvious precondition is that the Eustachian tube cannot be blocked! This can happen, for example, if it is obstructed by mucus or inflammation due to a cold, hay fever or perhaps a respiratory infection.

What happens in our ears when an airplane climbs?

As the aircraft climbs the air pressure inside the cabin gradually decreases until it reaches the level at which it will remain for the rest of the flight (at cruising altitude). Because this air pressure is lower than it was at ground level it means that some of the trapped air must be allowed to escape from the inner ear. If it doesn’t, the slightly higher pressure will cause the eardrum to bulge outwards. If all goes well, the overpressure air in the inner ears simply escape via the Eustachian tube. It’s easier for this tube to exhaust air than to suck it in, which is why hardly anyone has problems with their ears when an aircraft is climbing.

What happens in our ears when an aircraft descends?

As the aircraft descends the air pressure inside the cabin will gradually increase, so the rising air pressure will push the eardrums inwards. To counter this, the air pressure on the other side of the eardrums, in the inner ear, must also increase. To enable this to happen air must be sucked in through the Eustachian tube.

What is happening when you have ear pain during a flight?

If you are suffering from a cold or hay fever, the mucous membrane in the Eustachian tube can become swollen and impede the flow of air through it. Consequently, when the aircraft is descending the air pressure behind the eardrum, in the inner ear, will remain too low and will not be able to counteract the increasing cabin air pressure that is pushing the eardrums inwards. Initially you will feel this as pressure and later as pain in your ears. Furthermore, because the eardrum will be under constant pressure, it will no longer be able to vibrate freely. So you won’t be able to hear properly either

Tips and tricks to avoid ear pain during a flight

  • Swallowing and yawning opens the Eustachian tube so that air will be able to reach the inner ear during descent.

  • Even if you keep having problems long after the landing, it will still help when you keep swallowing.

  • There are a few other methods, such as blowing your nose, chewing gum, or drinking while pinching your nose closed. Whichever of these methods works best for you should be repeated a few times during the complete descent. We refer to all these methods as “coping”. Air is more likely to flow up the Eustachian tube if you swallow, yawn or chew. 

  • Try this: breathe in, then gently breathe out with your mouth closed while pinching your nose (it’s known as the Valsalva manoeuvre). In this way, no air is exhaled but you gently push air into the Eustachian tube. While doing this you may feel your ears go “pop” as air is pushed into the inner ear. This often solves the problem. Repeat the procedure every few minutes while landing – or whenever you feel any discomfort in your ears.

  • Do not sleep during descent (ask the steward or stewardess to wake you when the aircraft starts to descend). After all, you can only try these tips to equalise the pressure either side of your eardrums as long as you are you are awake!

  • If you have a cold and you still want to fly you could try a decongestant nasal spray. One such spray, containing Xylomethalozine for example, is readily available at pharmacies. This can temporarily dry up mucus in the nose, thereby helping to open the Eustachian tube if it’s blocked by mucus.

  • To encourage them to swallow, give babies or small children a drink or pacifier during descent.

  • By Didi Aaftink

Many more tips from KLM on making flying easier can be found here

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