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Tips to Avoid Excruciating Ear Pain on Airplane Descent

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Millions of people will be flying home over the next few days. Many will have colds and congestion, making them miserable, especially when the plane starts its descent. What can people do when they suffer excruciating ear pain?

Over the years we have heard from many people who have come up with novel solutions. Here are some samples:

Q. On one flight I had horrible ear and head pain so that I thought my brain was exploding. The stewardess put small paper cups with paper towels heated with hot water rolled up in them over both my ears. I got immediate relief!"

A. These days flight attendants are so busy that they may not be able to accommodate someone who has the kind of intense ear pain you experienced. There is also the whole liability issue. Airlines may not be thrilled with the idea of putting boiling hot water in Styrofoam cups with paper towels to ease passenger's pain. The risk of a bad burn might outweigh the goal of helping unblock ears.

That's why we like Ear Ease cups. These plastic cups do have to be filled with hot water, but once they are sealed they are quite safe. They help unblock clogged Eustachian tubes with heat. Doing so makes it easier to equalize pressure in the ear to reduce pain. If you would like to see what the Ear Ease looks like, here is a link. There is also a video to demonstrate how it works.

Full disclosure: the makers of Ear Ease are a People's Pharmacy sponsor. Regardless, we happen to think this is a terrific product worthy of consideration if you suffer from airplane ears (pain on climbing or descending quickly).

Here are other stories from visitors to this website:

"My ENT [ear, nose & throat] doctor told me to use Afrin spray (or generic form) in my nose before taking off on plane. It works! I also use rubber EarPlanes which fit into the ear easily." J.N.

Try "Ear Planes". They're specially designed ear plugs that relieve ear pressure when you fly. I used them on my last flight in December from Dallas to Denver to San Diego to San Jose (!) and they worked like a charm.

"I got mine near the pharmacy counter at Walmart for about $5/pair and each pair is good for one round-trip. After that they don't fit as well, so re-using them is really not an option unfortunately." Leslie

"My ear drum ruptured because a plane descended too fast at Reagan Airport in a March ice storm. Yes, it was so painful I cried out! There was nothing I could do to stop it.

"I wound up in the ear doctor's office after I got home. He treated it but the rupture left scars on my ear drum resulting in loss of hearing.

"I too got Ear Planes.  It helps but I will try Ear Ease to try and save the other ear, which has loss also.

"In other words, my friends, please take precautions as it will save your hearing. It's a horror trip to lose one's hearing.

"Good Luck all and hoping you find these hints helpful. Smart too late." W.

"I have been a flight attendant for over 17 years and I have seen and heard it all when it comes to ear pain on descent. I've had passengers screaming and crying. One passenger's eardrum exploded, shooting blood on the white shirt of the passenger next to him.

"This is a serious problem, and the medications people take for it don't always work. I was lucky to have been given an Ear Ease years ago as a baby shower gift. After my son was born and I went back to work, I took the Ear Ease with me every time I flew. I've helped so many people, both kids and adults, in terrible pain.

"We used to use foam cups with hot paper towels in them, but our company told us not to use them anymore. There was a worry that someone could be burned if the towel dripped. Many people ask me where to get the Ear Ease device. I tell them check the Internet. It is a lifesaver if you are flying with head or ear congestion." Shelly

Share your own ear pain story (and solution) below in the comment section. Again, to learn more about Ear Ease, here is a link.

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A pilot shared this method for relieving ear pain when flying. Hold your nose and gently blow! Simply pinch your nostrils together with one hand and blow out. You'll hear your ears open up and the pain will stop immediately. It works for me every time.

People's Pharmacy response: The key word here is GENTLY. Blowing hard could cause pain and problems.

Intense ear pain on descent brought tears to my eyes for many years and I dreaded flying. I also suffered with intermittent bouts of upper sinus congestion and infections. A doctor suggested I use a Neti pot for the sinus condition several years ago and I now do that weekly during the dry winter and spring pollen seasons. I was dreading the 4 landings involved in a trip to Nicaragua last year but another doc suggested using the Neti pot and ONE spray of Afrin the day before my trip and it worked perfectly! I wish there were such easy solutions for all the other challenges of air travel these days….

I always take a decongestant a half hour before take-off. I'll take more during the flight if it is a long one. It always works for me. Before I learned to do that I suffered one horrible flight with severe sinus pressure. I thought I would pass out the pain was so terrible. I never travel without the decongestants.

My daughter was flying home with a terrible cold and in pain. The stewardess saw her agony and brought her a hot cup of tea, telling her to keep her head close to the cup, for the steam. She did that a few times during the flight and it really helped.

My other daughter was coming home with a bad cold and one of the pilots saw her crying - he said he would put the plane at a lower elevation and that really helped. These were some years back, though.

Years ago, I was a crew member for two years in the Navy. We were taught to blow out through your nose: On take off, & landing. This relieves pressure on the sinus's & ear drums. Also, swallowing before blowing helps.

I don't fly, but I do have TMJ and many allergies. I am very interested in hearing other people's experience with Ear Ease.

Thanks for sharing

I used to fly a lot for my company and also experienced these terrific pains. I found relief in this way - as soon as the plane started it's decent I started taking deep breaths and holding it as long as I could, then let it out slow, followed by another deep breath. I kept this up until we landed. It worked great. I could feel the pain staying away.

I want to also add I used this same technique to avert Cluster headaches.

I used to have lots of ear pain on descent in flying. Years ago I was prescribed guaiafenesin (now Mucinex over the counter) by my allergist. The added benefit? No more ear pain on descent. My ears now handle the pressure changes. (The doc was as surprised as I was.)

I use cheap ear plugs that I get at the 99 cent store. I put them in during the flight.

I had ear pain on descent for years until an EN&T specialist suggested I use Afrin 30 minutes before descent. Voila! Instant relief. I still take along my Afrin on plane trips but for some odd reason, no longer have that pain. My ears do plug up so to get rid of that I hold my nose and gently blow - opens up my ears & I can hear again.

The only thing I'm doing differently from the years when I had the pain is I use the generic for flonase every morning (but that may not be what's helping prevent the ear pain). Lots of good suggestions here for travelers, though.

About 4 years ago I was introduced to the cups with hot towels by a flight attendant when we had the privilege of riding in first class. What a miracle! I have flown a few times since then and keep those same cups for each flight. No other attendant has helped but my husband dampens my washcloths (brought from home) in as warm water as he can get from the bathroom sink on the plane. One time we used Hotties. My experience is, even if the water is warm I get enough relief to make the descent survivable. If only every flight I took landed in Denver. Never any pain there!

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