an airplane flying above the clouds

Q. My son is unwilling to fly because whenever the plane starts coming down for a landing his ears hurt. We are planning a family trip to visit grandparents but he doesn’t want to go. I hate to have him suffer but can’t leave him behind. Is there any way to prevent this ear pain?

A. First, we would encourage you to have a pediatrician or ear, nose and throat specialist make sure there is nothing seriously wrong. If not, a decongestant nasal spray can keep sinuses open and make it easier for the pressure to equalize within the ear.
We have also heard that a product called Ear Ease can help. These plastic units are filled with hot water and placed over the ears during descent. They cost about $14 per pair through If you click on that link you can get an idea of what they look like.
Another reader, Marianne, suggested the following approach, which is similar but less expensive. “Ask the flight attendant to bring you two Styrofoam coffee cups stuffed with very hot wet paper towels. You put the cups over your ears before descent begins. You can’t carry on a conversation and you feel kind of dumb but it works.”
We haven’t seen research showing how effective this approach is, but anyone who tries it should use just one paper towel stuffed into the bottom of each cup so that there is no danger of burns from hot water. Make sure that the paper towels have soaked every last drop so that no hot water can drip on a child’s ears.
Another reader offered the following:

“I read your column about the woman whose son hates to fly because it makes his ears hurt. I had the same problem and tried everything. I went to several doctors, but to no avail.
“Then a doctor friend suggested that I blow balloons on ascending and descending. Bravo! No more plugged ears. You do have to keep blowing the balloons to keep your ears open.”

A. Thanks for the fascinating tip. We have accumulated all sorts of home remedies for “airplane ears.” Many people complain that during descent their ears really ache. That’s because the pressure inside the ear differs from the outside air pressure.
Ear nose and throat specialists have recommended gentle nose blowing to help equalize the pressure. We suspect blowing on a balloon may have a similar effect.

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  1. Selina

    My ear pain on descent was so bad, causing immense pressure and a migraine I would be in tears. I have found that using a decongestant spray and continuously stretching my mouth open in a yawning position while descending has helped pop my ears without any pain.

  2. Lyle

    Just on a flight in Europe when13 year old son started crying due to pain in year. Flight attendant brought cup with hot cloth. Put cup over ear and pain reduced immediately. Wonderful inexpensive solution to illuminate a sore ear while flying.

    • Cathy
      Portland, OR

      I’ve had excruciating pain upon decent, also. The hot moist paper towel in a cup helped right away. Today it happened again and the flight attendant brought me a small water bottle that she had heated up. It worked just just as we’ll, plus it stayed warm longer! She gave me a paper napkin to put between my skin and the bottle in case it was too hot.

  3. Joe
    Long Island

    I had the same problem – got on a flight with a cold, and the descent killed me. I was able to pop my right ear, but not my left, and the pain was excruciating. A friend told me to take Sudafed (make sure you take the pseudoephedrine one, and not the one with phenylephrine) at least an hour before the flight, but I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t experience any pain so I called my doctor back home in NY (I was in FL on a business trip) and he sent a prescription for prednisone, which I had to pick up at a local CVS. I took 1 prednisone the night before the flight, one again with the Sudafed about 2-3 hours pre-flight, and then the last prednisone after the flight, and I was fine.

  4. rita

    For the last few years I have also had terrific pain starting at the side of my head and moving to my jaw. I was so surprised the first time it happened that I thought I may have been having a stroke or something! It also left me with a bad headache. I have had sinus problems for a few years now so I assumed it had something to do with that. It really puts me off flying and I dread the descent although it doesn’t happen every time. I have also been getting a stiff neck for a while now when flying, but unsure if this has anything to do with my sinuses. Perhaps someone can tell me if they have the same problem.

  5. Jansen
    Nashville, TN

    I accidentally ruptured both of my eardrums in separate incidents in my life and one has never even healed back up. I’ve flown twice since then, and you want to talk about pain. The last time was like a 4 hour flight to Denver. I was fine on the way there, but when I got back, I had a layover and you want to talk about pain. All that up and down. Well, now I’m in real trouble. I’ve got to fly to Liverpool to work, and I have no idea what to do. I even went to a specialist before, and he said I was fine. Apparently, he missed the hole in my ear that I can literally blow air through. I tried taking pain killers and even these special air plane ear plugs which did absolutely nothing. Somebody, pray for me! I can’t not fly anywhere! I want to travel the world one day!

  6. Bill
    Diamond Bar

    I’ve had this pain since I was a kid and I use to dread flying. The only thing that relieves my pain immediately is the Valsalva Maneuver. This is the method in which you pinch your nose and close your mouth while blowing. It is important to make sure no air leaks from either your mouth or nose as you blow. You gradually must increase the blowing pressure until you hear the air escaping from your ear or feel them pop. If you don’t perform the method correctly you will not get relief. Make sure not to blow to hard right away as you may hurt your ear… start with a small amount of pressure and increase it until you hear the air escape or your ear pop.

    Do not overdo it as this may cause more pain. If done right you may even sense air escaping from your tear ducts. Divers also use this method due to the extreme pressures of water. When I swim, I avoid going lower than 5 ft deep due to the intense ear pain.

  7. Amanda

    I cannot tell you the pain I have suffered on flights. My ears are like someone putting knives through my ears. I have screamed in fights. My ear has bled. The pain is worse than giving birth to my children.
    Decongestant etc do not work when you have a real problem. Ear planes don’t work. I refused to travel as I couldn’t keep putting myself through that. Anyway, I now have grommets. T-tube ones not the ones kids have. These have CHANGED MY LIFE.

    Seriously. If you have real problems every time and laugh at suggestions if sudafed and yawning then please please see your ENT specialist. You will not regret it. Your ears will feel full after the operation for about 3 months but so so worth it.

  8. donna


    I have had the same problem it is like having glass pushed into to your ear and I can tell when the plane is getting lower because it hurts.

    I have been told to get my ears syringed before I fly by a doctor, because the glass is wax being pushed around and it works.

  9. Amanda

    I love you all! Nobody believes me about the pain I go through while descending on a plane. I have tried ear planes, and taking benadryl but it doesn’t work. I get terrible pain even when going up and down hills or mountains, my jaw kills because I’m constantly chewing gum and yawing.

  10. Beth
    United States

    I have had this problem my entire life (I am 20 years old) and my Dr says it’s because I have unusually small eustachian tubes. Well, great, but that doesn’t change the fact that when I’m in a descending airplane I feel like someone is ramming a knife into each ear while simultaneously crushing my face/jaw/neck. I have found the only thing that works is a dose of Afrin nasal spray about half an hour before takeoff and again before descent if it’s a long flight. If I am at all sick, this doesn’t work and it is sheet agony. I have canceled/rescheduled flights due to colds and such–people think I’m crazy to waste the money but they have no idea; the pain is excruciating. I have not gone through childbirth but I expect the experiences are comparable.

  11. kyle
    Perth, Australia

    I’m a guy now 31yrs old I’ve experienced some of the worst pain imaginable I’ve had severe injuries throughout life requiring several stitches over 6 individual times, I’ve broken bones and had some of the worst toothaches ever but nothing compares to a plane descending for me.
    It is excruciating I’ve tried ear planes, decongestants, pain killers, all the remedies suggested to no avail. I am terrified flying for this reason, Last time I flied it started the second the plane started to descend it was a pain I can’t explain that went right through me from my ears down my throat, down my back and shoulders through to my legs.
    Also at the time I had also put in the ear planes 1hr before the descent as suggested on the packet, also id taken Sudafed and strong pain killers 2hrs before descending.
    After an unbearable 30mins descending my ears were ringing and I felt like I was deaf till at least 48hrs later.
    I could barely hear anything like I was underwater, now I’ve heard everyone talk about the yawn balloon blowing, pain killers and decongestants but for me nothing works and if I don’t find a solution I will never fly again.
    Also I get this pain if I go deeper than 2m underwater, any professional advice would be extremely helpful as I don’t plan spending the rest of my life in Perth.

  12. brian

    Yawning to unplug ears has always worked until today. I took two flights a week ago for a trip. I caught some cold or something and during the flight back today, it was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt. my ears plugged up a little during the flight, but when we were descending OOHHHHH. THE PAIN STARTED. my nose started running my ears drums felt as if they were exploding slowly and wouldn’t you know it, I started to cry. well the tears were flowing. the sides and back of my head also my neck were hurting. im not usually one to be sensitive either.

    • andrea
      Oakland airport

      I’m going through that right now someone please help.

  13. Ally

    Guys thanks for sharing. Helps to know we aren’t alone in this.
    I first experienced this excruciating pain in my ears, throat and eyebrow area 8 years ago on a budget airline 20 mins before landing. It was really horrible and tears were streaming down my face.
    I have spoken out to people about this but most have said to blow air and suck sweets or that I was being too much of a princess to complain about taking budget airlines( which are usually smaller aircrafts). I was sick on that flight so I thought being sick was the reason for that. I went on to take 2 other budget airlines and I still felt this horrible pain as if someone was stabbing me in the ear and forehead.
    For some reason, the pain isn’t so severe and even non- existent when I’m taking the commercial big airplanes. A friend of mine advised me to keep talking to the person beside me (the last 30 mins before descending) to open up the whole airway and prevent that pain. I find that this actually helps and I didn’t feel any pain!
    Try it! That beats all the blowing air and eating sweets which simply doesn’t work for me. In fact, I find blowing air dangerous as it felt like my eardrum would hurt further and explode.

    • umashankar

      I too suffer from excruciating pain in the ears as the plane starts descending. I found that ‘Ear Planes’ are available in America in big pharmacies, like cvs pharmacy, rite aid, walgreens,Walmart. Target etc. . They cost about 5dollars or so. Just insert them in the ears as per the directions written on the carton. Bingo, as plane descent starts air pressure bubbles start breaking and no pressure is built on the ear drums. I use them regularly. They are not available in india.

  14. Anonymous

    Do you think have head or brain surgery has anything to do with excrtiating ear pain on descent?
    I have nearly unbearable ear pain each time I fly. I have never tried any type of tubes yet, but next time I will.
    If that does not work, I will stay grounded.

  15. Tinda S

    I have been flying for ages, but recently on a trip back to Edinburgh from London I had the worst experience that has killed my excitement to fly. I suddenly felt like someone had inserted a grenade in my head and it was in the process of exploding. My nose was running and tears streamed down my face like never before…..
    The pain was BLOODY EXCRUCIATING! But calmed down when the plane landed. An hour later I got back home and that’s when my nightmare began…. I felt sudden slashes of pain on my face, it felt as if someone was drilling into my skill and the pain went through my ears to my throat. I couldn’t breathe, I was literally choking with pain and the snot and tears were back with vengeance.
    I screamt for my Mum in every language I know and my housemate had to call NHS24 (Of course I couldn’t talk to them due to the pain) but I was put on painkillers and I am still experiencing jaw and neck pain. I am quite worried, hence the reason I came here and it’s really “assuring” to know that I’m not alone.

  16. Tulipgirl

    Hi, I was a flight attendant for NWA for 10 years, during the 60’s, flying on DC6’s -8’s, Lockheed Electra’s and Boeing 720’s, 727”s. We were instructed to advise the navigator or 2nd officer if a passenger had a cold as they adjusted the pressure differently (more carefully) with those requests. Additionally, the airline supplied individual Vicks inhalers, which opened up sinus passages. Myself, a victim to sinus infections, frequently had shots of penicillin to prevent painful flying. Oh, how I miss those days.

  17. Laura

    I know exactly how you all feel. I even had such intense head and neck pain on one descent that I can only describe it as feeling as though my head was being ripped off at the shoulders. It was terrifying. I can’t take anti congestants either like sudafed as they give me palpitations. I use a combination of ear plugs. Whole flight now. Nasal spray and sucking sweets but it’s still painful. Just glad I’m not on my own with this. If anyone else had experienced the neck pain I’d be interested to hear.

    • Essie

      Hi Laura,
      It is exactly as you describe. I wonder and still am if cerebrospinal fluid has anything to do with the pain in association with how fast the plane descends. I have flown multiple times and only once did I experience this pain and it was a fast descent!

    • Carol

      To Laura, yes I also have intense pain to the point of tears and also experience pain down the sides of my neck. I take Advil Cold and Sinus Just before i get on the plane and it sometimes makes the pain bearable. The pain often lasts for weeks after a flight feeling like an earache.
      I also end up with severe sinus infections many times after
      Flying. Its worse on longer flights of more than 2 hours.
      I am going to bring Vicks with me next time and put some around my nose as the stewardess mentioned above. I dread flying now that I am in my 70’s. Only those of us who have gone through this understand. When I mention this to my husband and relatives they just give me a strange look, so next time, I’m staying home, its not worth the pain at my age! Good luck to all and thanks for the info that I hadn’t tried previously.

  18. Pete

    You obviously have NO IDEA what these people are talking about!! If it was as easy as pinching your nose and blowing they would be doing it!!! I also have this ridiculous airplane ear pressure problem and I can tell you, IT IS EXCRUCIATING!!!!!!!!!!! I am also unable to dive in water below about 7 feet without extreme discomfort due to the pressure on my eardrums. Nothing helps to equalize it. I have always had this ear problem and I do not have an infection of any kind.
    I avoid flying because of the intense ear pain, and sometimes the pressure and pain is so intense that I literally cannot hear the person next to me talking!!
    I always tell the stewardess or the Pilot on boarding about my ears, and one time, the pilot actually controlled the decent and I had no pain! As we disembarked, he asked if the slower decent had helped my ears. So I know it can be controlled!
    I wouldn’t wish intense internal head pain on anyone, but, I think you need to experience it at least once in order to understand what we are talking about!!!

  19. Francis

    I will be flying from Montreal CAN to NY USA to Doha QAT to Jakarta IND to Surabaya IND. Total flight time, 29+ hours and I just got a cold yesterday, I’ll be flying tomorrow. Here is my secret. Benadryl… Help remove congestion along with allergy symptoms and it’ll put you down for a while. :) Backup plan’s Dristan or Drixoral, if you don’t like that bitter after taste. Both don’t require prescriptions, in Canada at least, and will keep your nose free.
    As for the ears, I guess I just found how to move my jaw muscles to clear the ear tube when I was a kid… every time we use to drive uphill or downhill, I’d just play with my jaw muscle until my ear goes plock. Same in the plane, open the mouth, pull down the tongue and try to move the jaw a little by applying pressure with the tongue. And you’ll feel your ears goes pluck… My right ear is a little harder to pluck but it always gives up with good timing.
    Hope this helps.

  20. JB

    I have the perfect solution for ear pain on decent. This works not only in aircraft, but also fast declines down tall mountains. Every three minutes or so, make yourself YAWN. A nice, deep yawn. It works great for me. To be effective, yawn every three minutes till you land.

  21. M D

    I don’t know why yawning is never part of the standard advice. Swallowing and blowing into a held nose were not effective for me when I had this problem as a child and yawning worked.
    It should be on the standard list of strategies. I don’t know how to get a baby to yawn though…

    • Selina

      Yep yawning has been the only thing that worked for me! I have done diving too and doing the method when you blow into a held nose has never worked.

  22. lisa c.

    My eustacian tubes do not work so my ears cannot pop…I think part of it may be because my nose always has gunk in it…no idea why just always have had to blow my nose. Plane rides are agonizing to me…I have tried everything including ear planes which did not work at all. I am traveling by plane in December and am terrified. I am going to ask my doctor about getting pain killers… strong ones to take on the plane with me… I will cry id she refuses to do so:( I’ve even seen a specialist and he told me not much can be done… they could put tubes in but he said that may cause more problems. I’m so scared that next time I go my ears may burst!

  23. Marie

    I have had ear infections my entire life I’m 30 and still get 2-4 ear infections every year. The ear infections I get every year my war drum bursts and then it drains has happened every ear infection for my entire life. I flew to fla when I was 5 and y ear drum burst in air causing excruciating pain I flew for the last time at 11 years old I screamed the entire flight to just let me die.
    I am DEATHLY afraid to try flying again. I can’t even go up small hills without some ear pain, I do use the ear planes when I’m driving through the white mountains and they work amazingly well but I’m terrified to fly and I don’t want my fiancĂ©e to see how bad I am when that pain happens HELP

  24. Nita

    I have suffered with this problem since a very young age. At first, my family thought it was because I didn’t fly that often but as I got older and traveled regularly the pain got worse. I have tried everything from ear planes to chewing gum. I even invested in a ear popping device however all have proven to be unsuccessful. Keeping my mouth open during descent helps with the pain but my ears still get blocked. The worst thing for me is that my ears remain blocked for up to 4 days until I finally yawn. It’s a horrible feeling and I struggle to sleep with my head on a pillow. It’s like living like a deaf zombie. I don’t think I will ever overcome this issue and constantly worry about the long term damage to my ears.

  25. CD

    I read a lot of comment about holding your nose, and gently blowing until your ears pop… I had a bad experience flying, horrible ear pain, and after my ear had an infection and I could not hear. I went to a doctor who said she was glad I did not try that popping method or else I would have ruptured my ear drum. I still get the pain when flying, but am too cautious to even try that ear-popping method.

  26. Cindy L.

    I too am a sufferer! All the advice to hold your nose and blow does not work if you have this problem. I went thru the official scuba diving training and guidance for clearing your ears when diving, the instructor worked with me going down, blowing the nose ect. Going down then back up a little, blow, clear, going down, back up a little, blow clear. Very difficult but I loved diving and could get down following that process. And taking a Sudafed before. My ears are bad and I could only do one dive a trip.
    Even with all that I couldn’t do a second dive. I just went on a trip flying to Florida, the last leg into Orlando I was crying by the time we landed. Now I am home a week and one ear is still clogged. I have been taking Sudafed and other sinus meds. I read at another site to rub Vaseline in the ears. I will try that next.

  27. RT

    I have had the same problem. On my last very recent flight, I yawned very deep yawns constantly through the entire plane trip, because that is the ONLY thing that pops my ears, and before the flight I took ipuprofen and used strong dicolfenac (prescription) all around my ears and down the neck muscles. I didn’t have pain. Who knows if it will work next time, maybe it was all the prayers of my daughters!

  28. Lillian S

    OMG, I never knew anyone else felt the pain I felt on planes. My first plane ride was at the age of 9 to the Virgin Islands & I almost DIED. My family told me it was normal for people to feel pain so I forgot about it until the next time I flew, and it was exactly the same! At first I thought age had something to do with it, but years later after numerous plane rides at the age of 14 it was still the same pain, if not worse. All of the extreme pain described above is right on point, I was literally reading the comments like “Yessssssssss…this is me”. I have successfully avoided planes (even with going to school out of state) for the past 5-6 years but if I want to visit my dream destination (PARIS!) it is unavoidable. I am so nervous I am dreading the flight even months ahead of time. I have not tried the Ear Plugs, but I will make sure to buy multiple pairs! I have tried decongestant, which admittedly did help on the ascent, but did nothing for that pain in the ass decedent.
    I have been so terrified that I have passed on trips because of this!
    Signed a terrified upper respiratory sufferer,

  29. Gayle

    Boy, it’s nice to see I am not alone with this horrible pain and plugging up of the ears due to flying! I feel for all of you, though, because it really takes the fun out of traveling via an airplane! Arriving to your destination and then being partially deaf really is ANNOYING to say the least… I have spent much time (over the course of the first 24 hours on a trip trying to unplug my ears… pinching the nose and blowing, trying to yawn, hanging my head upside down off the side of a bed… weird but it helped…)
    I am flying from MN to GA next week and so will be stocking up on a decongestant (which I have used and have somewhat helped) and looking for these Ear-Planes. I hope I have found the remedy! Thanks for the tips, all. Wish me luck!!!

  30. PP

    Another way to help yourself preflight is to be adequately hydrated, i.e. drink plenty of water before you take off. Yes, it means you’ll have to use the restroom as soon as the light goes off, but it does help–and if you are on long international flights, keep on drinking! This is in addition to Ear-Planes, sudafed, and all the other measures described above!

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