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Airplane Descent Causes Excruciating Ear Pain

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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 $10 per pair through Amazon.com. 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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I have also used small plastic tubes called Ear Planes bought at any drugstore for this problem. They help equalize the pressure. And I chew gum while ascending and descending. Also, my doctor said to spray some Afrin in the nose before the flight, especially if you have a cold anyway.

The boy should be taught how to equalize his ears like a scuba diver does. Hold your nose and blow gently until your ears pop. I have a similar problem when I fly and this is what I do.

Maybe it is coincidence, but whenever I have earplugs in my ears, (the ones used for listening to music in flight) I don't have ear pain during descent.

Interesting that the previous article was about pseudophed (sp?) Claritin-D, etc.
When I used to have to fly frequently, I found that same excruciating pain the article described. Everyone said "hold your nose and blow" but I found that did nothing. Luckily, I had a cold when I took a trip and was taking a product called Dristan which cleared my nose and it also cleared my ear tubes and I HAD NO EAR PAIN for the first time. I sure did sleep well on that flight (Orlando to San Francisco). Since Dristan is no longer available, I switched to taking 2 Pseudophed tabs - no more sleep but the pain is still gone!

I seldom fly anymore but I still wouldn't get on the plane until I had taken my 2 pseudopheds. I never have tried the imitation pseudopheds, I just ask the pharmacist for the real ones (they are behind the counter) whenever I run low.

For decades I've had the problem of extremely painful earaches with pain continuing down my neck during airplane descents and occasionally still suffer from them. The simplest and most effective solution for me was and is to pinch my nose closed, close my mouth, and sort of blow without exchanging any air, creating internal pressure. One at a time, my ears open. I get a sense while doing this how much is just enough, and don't force it beyond what feels appropriate. There may be dangers associated with this practice so I try to be gentle. With persistence the ears do open although it may need to be practiced several times as the pressure builds up again.

I have the same excruciating pain in my ears upon descent. I hold my nose closed with my fingers and blow. It works every time and is the only thing I have to do. Immediately it clears the pressure and relieves the pain.

My daughter had the same problem. We found a product called "Ear Planes" (sold at grocery and drug stores, near ear plugs, etc) that works well. In fact, she is 26 and still keeps a set with her when she flies! They are small soft plastic spiral ear plugs that help regulate pressure during take-off and landing. I think there are two sizes, one for adults and one for children, so ask. But they only cost a few dollars so it's easy to try both sizes.

I know EXACTLY how he feels!! Here's a MUCH easier solution. Go to any drugstore (& if you forget, airport stores carry these too) and get a product called "EAR-PLANES". They are these little plastic do-hicky's that kind of cork screw into your outter ear that you use on Ascent and Descent. If you're really prone to pain like me, put them in BEFORE the plane pulls away from the jetty while the cabin door is still OPEN. Once the door shuts, pressurization begins (& so do ear issues). Once at cruising altitude, take them out, enjoy the ride. Put them back in once the captain begins slowly descending. Keep them in all the way until the cabin door is opened once again! Voila!! NO PAIN. They're WONDERFUL.

I always had extreme ear pain when taking off, and especially landing, in a plane. I was completely surprised that the problem totally disappeared after I'd switched to a vegan diet. The first time or two I thought it was just an especially good flight, or great pilot, but as it continued and others in my family had the same experience we realized our diet made a difference.

I have the same problem, and have found that a nasal decongestant used as soon as the pilot announces impending descent helps a lot. It is still painful, and I will still be half-deaf until the next morning, but the spray makes the difference between pain so excruciating that I would have tears pouring down my face and a mere earache. Chewing during descent helps, too.

Thanks for the information. I quit flying back some time ago due to the fact that I would have stabbing pains in my ears and would be almost deaf for at least two days after the flight and could not go out as I could not hear.

Hold your nose and breathe into a closed mouth to balance the pressure inside at the eardrums.

I am very glad to explain the reason for 'Airplane Ear. And a Simple solution.

During decent, Airplane cabin is being pressurized from about 8000 ft cabin to Sea Level in most cases, unless you are flying into Denver, which is at 5000 ft altitude. People who get this problem should use one of the following methods:

1. Carry some lozenges in your pocket & start sucking on one when they announce to get to your seat & tighten the seat belts. This act of sucking will open your air-passage from your ear to you mouth. This passage will equalize the pressure in your ear & eliminate the pain.

2. In case you forgot the lozenges on the kitchen counter at home, no problem. Just start doing the swallowing action & keep doing it till the airplane lands.

I am an FAA DER & my first job in Boeing was to work on the pressurization of the airplane cabin.

In the days of full service flying on the full service airplanes & when there were young good looking stewardesses, not attendants, they used to walk down the aisle & give lozenges to passengers even in Economy Class with a smile & explanation.

I can assure you it works even when today’s Attendants are yelling at you to put the seat-belt on ! And no stewardesses in site. If what I have written is news to you, that is because you are too young & I can assure you that I am old & know what I am talking about. I have also flown on many flights - twice around the world starting in SEA, in full service airlines. And I pity you all who have to fly on LCAs - LOW COST airlines.

One more item: The 'Dr. Friend' who suggested to use balloon during ascending is wrong. You will not get Airplane Ear during climbing, since airplane cabins are being depressurized.

Umesh Nisargand P.E. & FAA DER.

I tried everything to stop the ear pain when flying. The only thing that worked well for me were ear plugs called, EarPlanes. I bought them at Walmart for under $6.00. Use them for take offs and landings. They work best if left in during the flight.

I used to be an aircraft mechanic and had to do a lot of flying and sometimes my ears would bother me.

I found the best & easiest way to equalize the pressure in your head was when you started to feel uncomfortable was to take your fingers and squeeze your nostrils shut then GENTLY--and I repeat GENTLY blow into your head until your ears POP and equalize the pressure-- sometimes you have to do it several times depending on the severity of the decent but it does work.

I have always had problems with a lot of ear pain on flights until a pharmacists told me what to do.
Take sudafed. You have to get the kind they keep behind the counter. Take one half hour or even one hour before flight so
It has time to kick in before liftoff. It's amazing how well it works!

Ear Planes are inexpensive and sold in most drugstores. Before I found out about them, I experienced horrible ear pain and intense, unbearable pressure against my forehead. Since using Ear Planes, I am able to fly without any problems.
Ear Planes come in two sizes, adults' and children's.

This brings up problems with babies on descending flights -- you know that's when they start crying. Wow, this takes me back. I'm mid 70's now so when I first started flying planes were so low that I had no problem with air pressure. As planes flew higher I learned what Kevin (August 19, 6:56 am) reports -- "hold your nose and blow gently until your ears pop."

Time passed and we had a baby who understandably did not like the holding nose thing at all. An attentive stewardess (this is in the late 1960's) almost immediately brought us packets of sugar which our baby licked and then swallowed and she was a happy little critter (with an extremely shiny face) when she deplaned to meet her grandparents.

On the next trip she was a little older and the idea was to give her chewing gum. (Note: it may be impossible to teach a toddler not to swallow chewing gum.) Well, she was (and remains to this day) a happy flyer and her digestive tract survived intact. I still do the Kevin thing, or sometimes plug up my ears and then quickly release to get the same pop.

My brother rarely flies. He took a plane to Alaska. No problem flying to Alaska, but on way home, he experienced terrible ear pain and for days and weeks afterwards he had pain and dizziness. Turns out his sinuses were fractured during a car accident when he was much younger and that interfered with pressurization. Can't get him on a plane ever again.

It seems some people have extreme pain and others do suffer slightly from the pain,
I am unlucky and suffer greatly.. First time I flew I was 16 I was ready to kill my self, the pain was so bad I wanted to cry.

Sharp stabbing pains and then I was 1/2 deaf for a few days, I found swimming brought my ears back to normal.

The next time I asked everyone if they had this problem, I was told chew, and pop your ears, Yehh babow, that did nothing again I was in agony... I was scared to return home. A pharmacist told me to plug them with wax, which I did, helped a lot still had pain, but it was bearable.

I was still deaf for the next day I tried putting my head under water in the bath it helped a little but not as much as swimming in the pool.

The next time I told my doctor ' I get sore ears, and I didn't want to hear from him "oh just chew bla bla. " I told him straight out, ! The pain in extreme stabbing pain, I try chewing I try plugging I don't want to fly. He looked at me and said he gets the same problem, he explained how some people have smaller tubes in there ears
I forget the name of the tube, he explained to me how sudafed can help open this tube, he said take pills spray your nose, plug your ears and you should be fine.

Next flight I had, I was a bit excited, I did it all. ...... I must admit it did help more but not a complete fix.

I am flying tomorrow and I will do the same, I'm not taking the wax plugs out for the whole flight I don't care.

God I hope I don't get any pain,
Wish someone would invent a permanent fix.

After landing I get tremendous pressure in my ears which doesn't go away until I take prednisone. I do not have pain just pressure and clogged ears. Is this unusual and would tubes in my ears help? I am 65.

It is worth noting that pain is not the only symptom that may occur when the Eustachian tube is blocked. The pressure changes inside the middle ear may sometimes lead to vertigo (a sense of "spinning"), tinnitus ("ringing" in the ears) or hearing loss. In severe cases, rupture of the tympanic membrane (eardrum) may occur. And because children have smaller, tighter Eustachian tubes, the pain tends to be worse for them!

In saying that I'm not a Dr. I just run a site on the topic of Airplane Ear (http://www.airplaneears.info) I hope that helps though.


I have today, just returned home from a week's holiday in Spain. I have suffered intense pain and deafness, caused by flying, since I was 19. Now 52, it has put me off flying. This last holiday, was the first for 6 years, because I could not face the prospect of the agony and deafness. I used Ear Planes, because I have found them to be good. They worked fine going, but failed dismally coming back. I did forget to put them in at first during the ascent, but put them in within in moments. The popping started almost immediately and was excruciating during the descent. I am sitting here now with pain and deafness. I do suffer with my sinuses and can see now that this is the cause of my problems.

Next time (February when we fly to Jamaica) I plan to take decongestants, wear my Ear Planes and chew gum. Hoping this will be the solution as I am so worried that every time this happens it may be causing lasting damage to my ears. Since when we all go as a group, we have several children going with us, I plan to take a bag of lolly pops for the kids (and maybe the adults too). I would hate a baby to have to put up with this agony!

I FOUND A SOLUTION!!
I first had excruciating pain upon airplane descent 4 years ago when flying with a minor cold. I've always had sinus problems, and sometimes painful ears upon descent, but this pain was unbelievable - it felt like electricity running up my cheek into my eye socket and I assumed my face was black and blue because it felt like it was exploding. This has continued to plague me until this summer when I tried something new (I had been preemptively taking sudafed and nasal sprays to minor effect.)

Although I cannot actually pop my own ears, I tried holding my nose and blowing as hard as I can as soon as we started to descend - shifting the internal pressure as much as possible. I continued to do this every 30-60 seconds for the entire 20 minute descent - and NO PAIN!! I may have looked silly constantly holding my nose, but I look even more ridiculous as a full grown adult writhing in pain with tears running down my face. This was done when I was actively having sinus issues, so I was ripe for the torture I had come to expect. And no unnecessary drugs to take or earplugs to buy!

I too had excruciating pain during the descent of the plane. My ears were almost bursting from inside. I had to sleep with the deafness bt the ears poped while asleep. Just woken up and now I'm ok. I will look 4 ear plane 4 the pain was unbearable

I have been flying commercially for as long as I can remember. My first episode with severe pain occurred sometime between the age of 10 and 12 years old. I think it's important for even the most experienced aviation personnel to understand that people who suffer from this condition can not find relief simply by pinching their nose with mouth closed and blowing until the ear pops. Other methods such as chewing gum, sucking on lozenges, swallowing, or the hot paper towels in cup and hold to the ear method are also useless in most cases. I have tried them all. This is not simply a case of plugged ears. The pain felt can only be described as someone slowly pushing your head against a nail or spike through the ear till it can't go any further.

I recently ruptured my ear drum and if anyone is familiar with this pain knows what I am talking about. To put it into perspective, if the pain on a scale from 1-20 from a ruptured ear drum is a 20. The pain from in-flight cabin pressure during decent is like a 19, just under the threshold of rupture. Popping your ears as frequently as possible by whatever method works best for you is advisable, but in all cases does not prevent the inevitable. Of course take into consideration that everyone's condition may not be as severe as others. While it's not terribly painful I can not even stand the pressure under 3 feet of pool water.

What has worked for my flight problem is Sudafed (non-drowsy) or any decongestant I can get my hands on. I have never observed that I ever had a sinus cold during any of my episodes but I will admit that I have at times flown without taking meds and experienced no discomfort whatsoever other than ear plugging.

Thank you so much, Rose. :) I'm going to try this tomorrow when I fly to England!

Which kind of Sudafed did you use? There are a couple different kinds, like the one for Allergies and another for Pain & Pressure... The regular one is just for Congestion...
Also, how long before the flight did you take the 2 pills?
I usually take Claritin D before a flight, but lately it seems to be working less and less... :(

Thank you Paulbyr!

Thank you for your post, Zh; your experiences sound just like mine...
I usually take Claritin D before a flight to help with ear pressure, but last time it didn't seem to work very well :( I think I'm going to try Sudafed this time. Which kind of Sudafed did you use? The regular Congestion one? or the Pressure and Pain one?... Thank you!

Dear Rose, thank you for your input, My daughter gave me a set of these earplugs which were Wonderful"" I cannot find them any where, I am getting desperate as we are due to fly out from Australia to Santiago on 26th Feb. I think they may have come from Interstate. Or overseas? Where did you purchase yours? thanking you once again, Maxine.

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!

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!!!

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,

Lilly

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!

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.

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.

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.

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 fiancée to see how bad I am when that pain happens HELP

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!

Hi,

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...

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.

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.

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!!!

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.

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.

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