One sensation most of us who have flown are familiar with is having our ears pop upon takeoff, leading to discomfort when we return to the ground. A common way to “unclog” your ears is to hold your nose closed then breath hard. Although it’s often an effective way of equalizing the air pressure in your ears with the surrounding environment, there’s a very good reason why you should avoid doing it altogether.
Why Your Ears Pop In The First Place
Inside your middle ear down toward your throat is the Eustachian (or pharyngotympanic) tube. The Eustachian tube is normally closed off but it has a little pocket of air inside, which is usually equal to the surrounding pressure. Even though airplane cabins are pressurized, on most commercial aircraft the pressure is equivalent to roughly 2,100 meters (~6,900 feet) above sea level.
The higher up you are the lower the air pressure and as you increase in altitude, the Eustachian tubes open slightly, letting out air. When this happens you hear the familiar “pop” in your ears, allowing you to hear optimally in different pressure zones. You’ll notice right after landing your hearing feels muffled, and it will, until your Eustachian tubes upon up again to equalize pressure.
Blowing Too Hard Can Perforate Your Eardrum
Generally speaking your Eustachian tubes will balance things out on their own after a few days. You can however encourage them along in a few ways. For example, taking a hot shower, exercise strenuous enough to cause heavy breathing, and decongestant medicine work well since the Eustachian tubes also regulate mucus drainage. (Dry air conditions on airplanes can cause sinus congestion blocking your Eustachian tubes.)
Most doctors don’t recommend the hold-your-nose-and-breath technique to force air through your Eustachian tubes because too much pressure can tear your eardrum. The key is to be gentle – there’s only so much air that can go through your Eustachian tubes – and give up if things don’t feel better after a soft try or two.
What To Do If You Tear Your Eardrum
You’ll know you have if you experience intense pain with hearing loss. A bit of blood or discharge might also drip from your ear, all symptoms that mean it’s time to visit a doctor as soon as possible. Most perforated eardrums are partial tears that heal on their own within two months but it’s important you have a doctor take a look to ensure surgery isn’t required. You’ll also be prescribed antibiotics to prevent infections which can delay healing or eventually lead to a minor (but inconvenient) surgical fix.
You might want to seek medical advice as well if you still feel bouncy a week after flying, a visit to the doctor that shouldn’t cost much if you’ve done the wise thing and purchased travel insurance.